Characters in books feel more realistic when they have their quirks—those that endear them to the readers, and sometimes even those that annoy readers!
For example, if I were to ask you to picture Anne Shirley in your mind’s eye, you’d most likely visualize a red-haired girl prattling on and on about something. Or, if you were to imagine Sherlock Holmes, you’d likely picture a man smoking a pipe and scrutinizing an invisible clue on the ground.
The writers of these characters, like many other successful authors, have tapped into one of the oldest tricks in the book: developing characters by giving them unique character mannerisms. These recurring behaviors can bring your characters to life in the reader’s imagination.
What Are Character Mannerisms?
A mannerism is a repeated behavior, such as a gesture or a pattern of speech, that becomes characteristic of someone.
These little behaviors may seem so trivial as to be deemed “micro-behaviors,” and they can be an everyday habit (such as tossing their hair), or only done during specific moments (such as tapping their foot when they feel impatient).
In literature, writing about a character’s mannerisms helps make the character more visually accessible, enhancing physical descriptions and giving them motion even on the written page. Make sure you include these little quirks when preparing your character profile to give each person on the page added depth.
How to Write Character Mannerisms
As a writer, it’s your job to give your characters mannerisms that are believable and memorable. These tips will help you get started in using this tactic to make your characters more vivid for your readers:
1. Make sure the movement fits the character.
When you’re trying to decide on the idiosyncrasy to give your character, think about the following factors:
- Their background
- Their personality
- The time period of the story
- The character’s possible back story
These details are important because you need to give your character mannerisms that match who they would be in real life. For example, if your story is set in the 19th century, you might have your hero fiddle with a pocket watch.
The same mannerism obviously would look a little out of place for a 21st century character, with smartphones being the go-to gadget. (Instead, the 21st century hero might check their smartphone every few minutes!)
2. Make the mannerism move your story forward.
Remember that the goal of the mannerisms should be to develop your characters, not to serve as a distraction from your storyline. You don’t add them on just to increase your word count!
So how do you make sure they play a role in your story? Check where they occur, and if you find your character rubbing his chin too much even without anything serious going on, consider whether or not that quirk is really necessary.
3. Don’t overdo it.
Although you want your readers to see the mannerism often enough to equate it with the character, making them perform that behavior every four pages is definitely overkill! Instead, find ways for the behavior to fit into the story.
4. Avoid cliché mannerisms.
We’re familiar with many mannerisms in fiction that are, sadly, overused: how many times have you read of a character who tosses her hair regularly, or strokes their chin while they’re thinking? But in real life, how often does that really happen?
In order to be more realistic in your writing, try to steer clear of these cliché movements and gestures. One way of doing that is to observe how someone acts unconsciously in specific situations.
If you’re having trouble thinking up ideas, check out these suggestions below.
Ideas for Character Mannerisms
To get ideas for possible mannerisms for your characters, consider the following:
Fantasy writer Lloyd Alexander is an expert in creating memorable mannerisms for his characters. For example, in the first book of the series The Book of Three, we meet Taran, an Assistant Pig-Keeper who has high dreams of heroism.
And then we meet Gurgi, a strange, ugly-looking dog who speaks like this:
“Then,” Gurgi pleaded, “the two strengthful heroes will give Gurgi something to eat? Oh, joyous crunchings and munchings!”
“Afterward,” said Gwydion. “When you have answered our questions.”
“Oh, afterward!” cried Gurgi. “Poor Gurgi can wait, long, long for his crunchings and munchings. Many years from now, when the great princes revel in their halls—what feastings—they will remember hungry, wretched Gurgi waiting for them.”
“How long you wait for your crunchings and munchings,” Gwydion said, “depends on how quickly you tell us what we want to know. Have you seen a white pig this morning?”
A crafty look gleamed in Gurgi’s close-set little eyes. “For the seeking of a piggy, there are many great lords in the forest, riding with frightening shouts. They would not be cruel to starving Gurgi—oh, no—they would feed him…”
Consider the following possible speech mannerisms you can use:
- Rhyming words
- Speaking in a singsong tone
- Using formal words even in casual conversation (one of the characters in Robert Lawson’s Rabbit Hill has this habit)
- Talking too fast or too much, to the annoyance of everyone else (think Anne of Green Gables)
- Fond of making hasty generalizations (Miss Cornelia of Anne’s House of Dreams is known for this)
- Using lots of similes and metaphors (Elionwy of Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain does this)
- Exaggerating everything
- Tending to mumble, especially when nervous
- Speaking in a hushed voice
- Stammering or stuttering
- Breaking off in the middle of a thought and talking about a different thing altogether (Susan Coolidge gave this quirk to Clover’s companion, Mrs. Watson, in Clover.)
Does your character make characteristic noises? Consider the following:
- Hums a lot (think Winnie-the-Pooh)
- Laughs when uncomfortable
- Breathes noisily
- Tsk-tsks often
- Belches in public
- Sneezes frequently
Or, does your character have the following habits:
- Tilts head when thinking
- Tosses hair a lot
- Twirls hair when nervous or when flirting
- Bites nails when nervous
- Grinds teeth when angry
- Clenches jaw in tension
- Sweats too much
- Licks lips when nervous
- Runs tongue over braces when thinking
- Bites bottom lip
- Darting eyes
- Looks down to avoid eye contact
- Blinks rapidly when nervous or when lying
- Knits brows when thinking or angry
- Rubs the temple when annoyed
- Clasps hands behind back when standing
- Fidgets with items in hand
- Stands with hands on the hips
- Covers mouth when laughing or chewing
- Shrugs shoulders instead of answering
- Drags feet while walking
- Crosses legs when sitting
- Taps feet when impatient
- Drums with the fingers unconsciously
- Rocks back and forth
- Pushes glasses up on nose by scrunching up face
- Takes off and cleans glasses whenever he wants to buy time
- Shredding paper unconsciously
- Picks nose in public
- Smacks gum
You can download this list of character mannerisms as a PDF for easy reference.
Using Mannerisms to Develop Characters
If you want to learn how to use mannerisms effectively, study your favorite novels and note down the mannerisms that the characters have. Observe how often that tick occurs and what contexts it occurs in. Then, practice giving your own characters habits and idiosyncrasies to make them stand out.
Whichever mannerism you decide to bestow on your character, remember that it needs to serve your character’s development. Even after you finish your first draft, consider looking back at where these mannerisms occur, and feel free to change or remove them if that will serve your story better.
Did you find this post helpful? Let us know in the comments below!
If you enjoyed this post, then you might also like:
- Character Motivation: How to Craft Compelling Characters with Drive
- Characterization: How It Connects Readers to Your Story
- How to Create a Character Profile: Complete Guide with Template
- How to Write Character Arcs: Adding Depth to Your Story’s Players
Yen Cabag is the Blog Writer of TCK Publishing. She is also a homeschooling mom, family coach, and speaker for the Charlotte Mason method, an educational philosophy that places great emphasis on classic literature and the masterpieces in art and music. She has also written several books, both fiction and nonfiction. Her passion is to see the next generation of children become lovers of reading and learning in the midst of short attention spans.