Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Characters and Their Mannerisms

A man cracks his knuckles or jingles change in his pocket. A woman pushes away her bangs or taps her fingernails against a table. Another man fidgets with his eye glasses, or a woman bites the edge of her fingernail. Some people are knee-bouncers. Others are toe-tappers. Many are clothes-tuggers. Most everyone has a mannerism or idiocyncrasy of one kind or another.

Do you notice these actions in people? If you haven’t the next talk show you watch, pay attention to the habits/mannerisms of some of the guests or the host of the show. When you're in a social setting with a group of people, be observant. Take note of their behavior and pick up on mannerisms. Habits go beyond individuals's physical actions. Some people are lint-pickers. Some are rug-straighteners. Others fool with chair arm-covers or click their ballpoint pen. Being aware of mannerisms and adding them to your ficiton brings it to life and makes your characters real.

Besides creating believable characters and enhance characterization, mannerisms can be used effectively in fiction to provide an attitudinal or emotional signal for the reader. Mannerisms can alert the reader when the heroine is nervous. In a tension situation, show her running her fingers through her hair or rubbing the back of her neck. Later in the story, use this again when she’s under stress. The action has now been established as a signal that she is feeling nervous or uptight. A detective might notice the behavior and realizes the heroine knows more than she’s admitting. A romantic suitor could be aware that his advances are not being well-received for some reason as he observes the heroine. Rather than telling readers how the heroine is feeling, by showing her response, you are allowing readers to participate in the discovery.

Never overuse mannerisms. Use them for greatest effect on major characters and not necessarily all of them. Decide where they will be most effective and then let them enhance the story. Be subtle and weave them into the description in a way they don't pop out as designed to alert the reader. For example: Faced with the difficult decision, Byron paused, the pulled off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He lifted his head, a glazed looked on his face, and folded his glasses, using them as a pointer. Creating off the top of my head, I hope you see how the glasses coming off serves a purpose as a pointer, but also illustrates his discomfort with the decision. In another scene, the glasses might come off and be flung onto a desk or used to tap against his blotter as he makes a point.

In the same way attire, color and style provides insight into characterizations, so do mannerisms so use them to provide information that deepens characterization and establishes a mood or emotion within the scene.

Vocal descriptions also add to character which is the subject of my next blog.


Sally Ferguson said...

Thanks for the word pictures, Gail. It helps to see examples!

Kristi Holl said...

These are great specific ideas, Gail. We all have our own overworked "favorite" mannerisms to watch for. (My characters, left to their own devices, nod their heads. All the time. By the end of a rough draft, they seem like those bobble head toys.) As you pointed out, if we're just alert when around other people, we'll see all kinds of mannerisms we can use in our writing to help clue in the reader on the emotion in the scene. Thanks for sharing your expertise!

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Sally and Kristi - Thanks so much. I'm pleased that the blog gave you some new ideas about creting interesting mannerisms for your characters. Not everyone needs them, but it's nice to bring a character to life and give signals to readers by using them.

Wishing you the best with your writing.

Anonymous said...

i love this blog. it completely describes the subtle descriptions that go into every great work of fiction. i love using these techniques and to see it in writing on the web is encouraging. thanks for the advise

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Thanks so much, Natural-lemons for your very kind comments. I appreciate hearing from you. It makes the work worthwhile to know I'm providing something meaningful.