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  Developing Character Traits - Mannerisms
by Tina Morgan

 

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. Often we learn these traits from a beloved caregiver or other influential people in our lives.

These little idiosyncrasies can be used to give our characters more depth and human appeal. They can also be used as a clue to unraveling a mystery. A villain who breaks twigs whenever he/she is standing near a tree or shrub can give themselves away by the minute pieces of broken wood left in their wake. Or as a poignant  remembrance in a tale of loss; a woman always stacked her shelves with the labels facing out and her surviving spouse cannot open the kitchen cupboards without weeping.

Rounding out a character involves more than just relating their conscious actions. What do they do when they're nervous, happy, scared, bored or angry? Does the antagonist crack his knuckles right before he becomes violent? Does the protagonist twirl her hair between her fingers when she's concentrating? There are a wide variety of mannerisms.

1)   tapping a foot
2)   chewing the inside of the cheek
3)   biting fingernails
4)   greeting everyone with a hug or handshake
5)   a quick smile in greeting or nervousness
6)   a toss of the head
7)   lowering the eyes flirtatiously or timidly
8)   running fingers through hair
9)   snapping fingers or cracking knuckles
10) blowing breath out through the mouth in exasperation

These are just a few to help you think about your own idle gestures and how you can incorporate them into your work.

Mannerisms can also help to identify the current mood of your characters. An angry character who does not wish to show her anger through voice may still inadvertently give her mood away by her actions.

Here's an example:

"You're angry with me, aren't you?" John tried to meet her gaze, but she continued to stare down at her needlepoint.

"No I'm not," she said quietly. The needle stabbed viciously into the soft cloth.

John chewed on his top lip, then stopped when he recognized it as being a trait his father used when he was nervous. It was a trait that has always annoyed him, and yet he could not help but emulate it. "Then why won't you talk?"

The silver needle darted into the fabric again. "Because you lie to me." Another silver flash. "Because you don't listen to me anyway, and because..." She drew her breath in sharply as the needle embedded into the soft flesh of her thumb.

If you observe your co-workers, friends or classmates throughout the course of the day, you should see many interesting mannerisms that you might be able to use in your story. Remember, just as the real people you observe make these movements without thinking about them, your reader should be able to read about your character's mannerisms without really thinking about them.

Mannerisms can help your reader visualize your characters with greater clarity. A few well placed nervous ticks can help define who your character is, but like any good thing, mannerisms should be used with care and discretion. Rather like chocolate. A little can satisfy a craving for sweets, too much can lead to longer periods of time on the tread mill.


Copyright 2003 Tina Morgan.



 


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