What Are Mannerisms, And How Can They Help You Create Memorable Characters That Jump Off The Page?
How do you create characters that feel real? The best stories are brought to life by characters that jump off the page – they are three-dimensional, rather than two-dimensional – as if they’re sat right beside you.
We understand it can sometimes be challenging to do this. After all, strong characters are the heart and soul of every story.
One of the most effective ways you can do this in your novel, using a classic ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ method, is through character mannerisms. These are an essential way of breathing life into your character. They can elevate your writing to the next level, helping your readers feel more invested in your characters naturally and organically, ensuring they’re still thinking about them long after they’ve finished the final chapter.
But firstly, let’s ask ourselves: What exactly are character mannerisms?
Mannerisms are the things that people do repeatedly without realising. They are typically unconscious gestures, vocal tics, or expressions. They can be things that people do with their hands, faces or voices – they might do them repeatedly and not even realise they’re doing them. As mannerisms are individual quirks, they can be a great way to build a character’s personality.
For example, when considering how to convey strong emotions, it can be useful to look at a list of mannerisms for specific emotional responses.
There’s a reason why fiction writers are always people-watching. We love to see how individuals act, and how they react. We don’t all act the same way when shocked or angry.
Let’s take a look at some standard mannerisms of everyday emotions and see if you can add any of your own.
Mannerisms Of A Sad Character
- Wobbling lip
- Wiping their eyes
- Looking upwards to bat away tears
- Looking downwards at their feet to avoid eye contact
- Fidgeting with their hands
- Stumbling over their words
- High-pitched voice
- Coughing to clear their throat
- Biting their fingernails
Mannerisms Of A Happy Character
- Open body language
- They make tactile movements, such as touching, stroking, and hugging other characters
- Laughter and smiling
- Humming and singing
- Demonstrate politeness through gestures such as holding a door open for others
- Sing-song speech pattern
- Shortness of breath from speaking too fast and too excitedly
- Gesturing wildly with their hands while talking
- Swinging arms when walking around
Sad and happy are quite general emotions, so let’s look at a list of mannerisms for something a bit more specific, like a character who is displaying narcissistic traits, or one who is shy.
These types of character traits offer the opportunity to link the character’s mannerisms with their back story and development (a very important aspect of mannerisms that we will explore further in this article).
For example, your character may be timid due to past trauma, a phobia, or a history of abuse – or from having a narcissistic parent.
Mannerisms Of A Narcissistic Character
- Frequently looking at themselves in the mirror and constantly checking their appearance
- Exaggerating, bragging, or lying about their achievements or talents, and seeking out constant praise and admiration
- Demeaning or belittling others – they might do this by interrupting other characters and speaking over them
- Physical mannerisms might include smirking and sneering and rolling their eyes when others are talking
- Confident physical traits – they will likely have a strong posture, with a confident stance and walk with a swagger
- Loud speaking voice and loud laugh
Mannerisms Of A Timid Character
- Jumpy and flinching at sudden noises
- Isolating themselves, they’re often on their own
- Nervous around strangers
- Stuttering and stammering and are quite often tongue-tied
- Natural response is to freeze in high-pressure or high-stress environments
- Shaking – physically with their hands or in their voice
- Speaking quietly and softly, and less frequently than other characters
- Showing general social awkwardness – difficulty engaging in conversations, maintaining eye contact, joining in on jokes etc
Speech And Dialogue
Aside from emotions, there are also mannerisms you can give your characters to elevate them from the page and bring them to life. These can be intertwined with speech and dialogue. Think about the following…
- Volume: Does their voice boom, or are they softly spoken?
- Where do they come from, and does it affect how they speak?
Do they have an accent? Are there certain phrases they use frequently?
- Do they talk more than they listen? Do they interrupt other characters?
- Speed: Do they speak quickly or slowly?
- Are buffer words such as ‘like’ or ‘erm’ used frequently? (Only add these if they are part of the character traits, or it will be distracting for your readers).
- Do they make physical noises, like coughing, laughing, clearing their throat, or muttering?
Physical Character Traits
There are also physical mannerisms that can convey a sense of who they are to a reader. Perhaps a character plays with her hair, implying she’s flirting, or maybe it’s a nervous habit. If they are anxious, they may tense their jaw, grind their teeth, or rub the back of their neck or temples. These physical reactions work well in moments of high-stakes tension.
Think about what a character is doing with their body, as well as what they are saying or thinking. Biting their lip or the inside of their cheek might be seen as a sign of nerves, worry or a lack of confidence. What are they doing with their eyes? Both strong eye contact or avoiding/breaking eye contact can convey emotions or depict personality types.
And finally, posture – how does your character present themselves? Do they stand confidently with their shoulders back, or are they slumped over? A broad stance or a slouch can say a lot about a character and offer an immediate impression to a reader.
Using External Interactions
Considering how your characters physically interact with objects and the environment around them is another important aspect of character building. For example, if they wear glasses, are they repeatedly pushing them further up their nose? Do they take them off and rub their bloodshot eyes? Do they clean them with a handkerchief while pondering in a moment of thought?
Imagine our character holding a pen. Would they tap it against the table, annoying other characters? Would they doodle absentmindedly on a blank page while in a daydream? Maybe they’d chew the end of the pen if they’re nervous? Or click it repeatedly?
There are many ways you can use external objects or surroundings to add new layers to your character’s personality.
Creating Tension And Conflict
Mannerisms can also be an excellent tool to create tension and conflict between characters. Conflict is one of the most vital aspects of every story and every character arc (check out our free character arc guide and template for your character development). Without conflict and something for your characters to overcome, there is no story.
But how can mannerisms add to this?
The conflict and tension concerning an individual mannerism can’t be instant, as the mannerism needs to be well-established. But once it is, then it’s the perfect opportunity to have another character pick up on the quirk or trait and interact with it. For example, they could ask that person to stop doing it (because they’re finding it irritating, and it could be the final straw that makes them snap). Or they could ask why they always do it (inviting a conversation, and maybe creating or diffusing tension, about how that specific mannerism is linked to their back story).
Individual literary genres tend to approach internal and external conflict differently; our blog about conflict in genre writing breaks this concept down in further detail.
Let’s go recap all we need to know about creating believable characters through their mannerisms.
Character Mannerisms: What To DO
‘Show, Don’t Tell’
It’s the age-old writing advice, but it’s especially relevant when writing character mannerisms. Don’t have your character simply saying “I’m sad” – instead, make them wipe away a tear slowly rolling down their flushed cheek.
Link Mannerisms To A Vital Part Of A Character’s Back Story
For example, they shouldn’t be shy or awkward for absolutely no reason. Perhaps it’s linked to a childhood experience when they were humiliated at school, and now they find crowds difficult to handle. Our blog about characterisation and character development is a useful resource for creating meaningful backstories and character arcs.
Try And Avoid Clichés
Some mannerisms are overused and can therefore turn a reader off (our blog about avoiding clichés and writing believable characters is an excellent guide). Think outside the box if you can and consider how you or other people act subconsciously in certain situations. Sometimes it can help to observe people and actions in these settings.
Character Mannerisms: What NOT To Do
Repeat The Mannerism Too Frequently
It might distract from the character and the story, and become annoying for the reader. However, on the other hand, don’t just add the odd mannerism in as a throwaway gesture; otherwise, it won’t be memorable enough.
Leave Mannerisms As An After-Thought
These mannerisms should act as the backbone of your character. They should be deeply connected to who they are as a person and why they act (or don’t act) the way they do.
Why Your Character’s Mannerisms Are Important
In a nutshell, mannerisms are typically the things people repeatedly do without realising, which means they are an extremely useful tool for developing character personalities and backstories.
As writers, we know that there’s a huge sense of achievement in creating memorable characters that jump off the page and stay with the reader long after they’ve put the book down. That’s exactly why it’s worth investing the time into creating mannerisms for your character – therefore revealing who they are and helping the reader to understand them on a much deeper level.
Just remember not to use mannerisms for the sake of it – always ensure that they tie into your character’s personality, background, and development.
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