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Mannerisms – the Icing on the Cake

April 6, 2009

“A character should display only as many mannerisms as are necessary to convey what is important about him or her without distracting from the story and the character’s role within it.”

Brandilyn Collins
Getting Into Character: seven secrets a novelist can learn from actors


Mannerisms are like wonderful short cuts to the nerve centre of your character. They have the potential to say a lot or say very little, depending on the importance that you place on them, the style in which you weave them into your story and the methods in which you employ to create your characters in the first place.  Understanding the importance of mannerisms can assist the writer in creating three dimensional, life like characters.

Tina Morgan writes in her article Developing Character Traits : Mannerisms

Mannerisms are those unique little gestures and movements we make that set us apart from those around us. They are ingrained into our subconscious and we rarely realize we’re doing them … These little idiosyncrasies can be used to give our characters more depth and human appeal.

Getting a character’s mannerisms right is particularly important in short stories, when saying less is more, especially when you’re sticking to a tight word count. Last week, in my[ Fiction] Friday piece, Wall Flowers and Corner Kicks I used mannerisms to reveal elements of my characters that I didn’t want to have to spell out; Rod’s feet on the desk, Gretel with her daring flash of cleavage, Rosalind’s manic replacement of phantom hairs and Lois chomping on the end of her pencil. There was also Rosalind’s annoying use of addressing Rod by his full name. All of this helped to flesh out the dynamic of the four characters, the conflict at hand and the potential for resolution – or in the case of Lois, the twist of the resolution.

Mannerisms are also particularly useful in illustrating a character in a state of internal conflict – words can say one thing but their body language expresses another. In a workshop I recently attended, a writer sitting opposite me felt that the character in her story was probably a little softer under the gungho, jock exterior he presented in her second draft. Through a series of writing exercises she had got to know him a little better and wanted to portray him with more authenticity. I suggested she add a small mannerism that might indicate there was more to him – something contrary to his brash, “look at me” behaviour.

The best way to understand your character’s potential mannerisms (in addition to really knowing your character in their three dimensional glory) is to know and appreciate your own idiosyncratic behaviour.

Consider for a moment what you do when you’re nervous, happy, scared, bored, angry, stressed or in love.

When I am nervous I rub my nose – a hang over from believing my mum as a small child, when she told me my nose would grow like Pinocchio if I lied! I tend to gnaw on my nails when I am bored (especially in the car). I grind my teeth when I am stressed, to the point during my Year 12 examinations I actually gave myself nerve damage in the jaw and was on painkillers. When I was younger I was a habitual finger tapper when I was concentrating, making me an infuriating person to play canasta with. I was actually issued with a writ at one point – stop tapping or stop playing.

Mannerisms can be endearing or they can be downright annoying, both of which adds depth and dimension to a character in addition to creating the potential for interesting interactions or conflicts with other characters.

A character’s quirks have the capacity to capture the reader’s attention – depending on how bold or subtle they are. Sometimes a writer will choose to immediately pair a gesture with an emotion or a memory to use it as a vehicle of “show don’t tell” in future references, almost in a form of classical conditioning. Other writers choose instead to hold off and use the mystery around certain mannerisms to build suspense, revealing all at a later stage. Either way imbuing characters with interesting mannerisms is one way of conveying something about the character, their state of mind or their emotional state without having to explicitly say so.

Mannerisms are not just what our characters do with their hands or their feet, but also their facial expressions and the use of the voice. We have Magic Alex’s Dated and Sexist as one of the CDs in our car. On one  song there is an answering machine message mixed into the beginning . Every time I hear the songI want to rush off and create a character based on the upward inflection in the guy’s voice when he says “bye”.  It leaves me hanging for more – even though he’s saying good bye it doesn’t sound like an ending.

While some mannerisms are seepages from our own archive of odd behaviours or picked out from the world around us, sometimes they seem to just materialise on the page. I have a sneaking suspicion when this occurs a character is attempting to communicate something about themselves to the writer. If we listen without prejudice our characters have the ability to show more about themselves than we could ever have told them they have.

Mannerisms are the icing on the cake, when a writer has worked to create a character with emotional depth, core truths, values and motivations rather than just a great hair do and a fantastic ward robe.  Whether an embellishment or a gateway, all writers should consider the use of mannerisms to create fresh and interesting characters.

This week’s challenge is to go out people watching, on the assumption that life is always stranger than fiction. If you don’t already have one, start up a mannerisms file/page to record and store your observations.

In the mean time – what are some of your favourite characters’  beahvioural quirks and what do you think they  say about the character/s? What are your more infamous mannerisms?

Jodi Cleghorn is looking forward to the festival of the beautiful hands aka the Byron Bay Writers Festival in August, with the release last week of early bird tickets. Now she is wondering how she can top her 2008 festival antics. Keep updated at Jodi’s blog Writing With Passionate Abandon.
One Comment
  1. April 7, 2009 7:44 am

    Seeing you have opened your dark cupboard and shown us some of your mannerisms… I have one which drives my hubby mad – especially as my 6 year old does it too. When I am tired or thinking deeply, I will twirl the front lock of my hair around and around in a finger. Sometimes it gets locked up in a huge knot and I need help to extract my finger out……

    and yes – thanks Jodi – I do love to watch people – like Dale does – and just use their mannerisms to work out what they are like and what they are saying to one another…

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