Part of the magic of great fiction is its ability to let you see their characters in your mind’s eye. Think about Sherlock Holmes and you might picture him smoking a pipe, or stroking his chin in thought. Or Anne Shirley from Anne of the Green Gables, who might at any moment be gesturing enthusiastically and talking a mile a minute.
Much of this ability to conjure actors in this theatre of the mind comes from one simple trick in the book of character development: character mannerisms. A well-observed tic or recurring behavior can unlock your characters and bring them to life in your audience’s imagination.
If you’re wondering how to start going about it, you’ve come to the right spot on the Internet. We’ve split this post into three parts: what character mannerisms exactly are, how to write them into your story, and a list of 150+ mannerisms for you in case you’re running short on inspiration.
What are character mannerisms?
A mannerism is a gesture, speech pattern, or way of conduct that is characteristic of an individual. These “micro-behaviors” might range from an everyday movement (i.e. clearing the throat) to a very specific tic (i.e. biting nails when nervous). In literature, writers use mannerisms to help enhance physical descriptions and put characters in motion on the page. Consider it another tool in your writer’s toolbox when it comes to character development and depiction.
Character mannerisms are one way in which writers can show, not tell. Here’s an example of the difference it might make:
- Telling: “Why did you just stab me with a toothpick?” cried Matt, surprised.
- Showing: “Why,” cried Matt, blinking rapidly, “did you just stab me with a toothpick?”
However, it’s important not to overdo it and bring up a certain quirk time and time again. Let’s talk a bit about some best practices that may be helpful when it comes to writing character mannerisms into a story.
How to write mannerisms in a story
Pro-tip: Don’t tell a reader that your character is stroking his mustache every four pages. Here’s how to make your character’s mannerisms slot seamlessly into a story.
Make the movement fit
Most importantly, a mannerism has to make sense in the context of the story. When you’re thinking about your character’s idiosyncrasy, consider:
- The personality of the character;
- The environment of the scene; and
- The era in which the story takes place.
How does a character’s background impact the way that they move? How might the era and setting influence their actions? An Iranian man, for instance, wouldn’t use the thumbs-up gesture anywhere in the world — unless he wanted to insult someone. Then there’s the hero from the 19th-century, who would fiddle with his pocket watch, as men didn’t start regularly wearing wristwatches until the early 20th century.
If you get it right, a character’s mannerisms can speak volumes. J.K. Rowling, for example, employed mannerisms to great effect with Newt Scamander from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. He hunches, tilts his head down, and goes out of his way to avoid eye contact — conveying to the audience that he’s shy, awkward, and non-threatening. Meanwhile, Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean sways even when he’s standing, stumbles over nothing, and slurs: in other words, he’s a drunk pirate, through and through.
Make it add to the story, not distract
Don’t tack on an odd behavior just to up your daily word count. Mannerisms should add to your story — not distract from it. You must be able to justify why you’re writing them into a given scene: whether it’s to reveal character, break up long sequences of dialogue, or advance the conflict.
Most of all, nobody wants to read about a common physical movement, flip the page, and then read about it again. You’ll risk tiring or annoying your audience — not to mention that the forward thrust of your story will suffer as it’s bogged down by irrelevant descriptions of gestures.
So if you notice a character twirling their hair in each chapter, it’s probably time to hit the “Find” button and re-think it. As the adage probably goes, “Everything in moderation — including mannerisms.”
Don’t get too cliché
How often do you really wring your hands? Or stroke your chin when you’re deep in thought? Some mannerisms are generally overused in fiction. To go about it realistically, make sure that you don’t rely too much on these cliché gestures and movements.
To think beyond the box, consider how you unconsciously act in certain situations. Yes, this might be tough, which is why we’ve also come up with a resource to help you out.
The Ultimate List of 150+ Character Mannerisms
If you’re struggling to come up with mannerisms for your character, here are over 150 to give you a headstart.
Or: how do your characters talk? What tics do they show in conversation or during a presentation?
- Uses a falling inflection
- Ends sentences with question marks
- Speaks in a whisper
- Always talks over others
- Tendency to mumble
- Slurs words, even when sober
- Has a sing-song speech pattern
- Shortness of breath from talking too fast
- Unnecessary or exaggerated throat clearing
- Deep breaths between every sentence
- Constantly swallowing when nervous
- Heavy reliance on buffer words: “Like,” “Um,” “Uh,” “Totally,” “Basically,” “You know”
- Laughter to fill in uncomfortable silences
- Muttering to oneself
- Noisy breathing
Or: how do your characters move? What characteristic things do they do when they’re sitting, standing, or walking?
- Tilting head in thought
- Hair tossing
- Hair playing or twirling when flirting
- Head bobbing while listening to music
- Grinding teeth
- Scratching the head
- Flaring nostrils
- Rubbing the neck when embarrassed
- Raised eyebrows
- Head on the chin in resting position
- Jaw clenching in moments of tension
- Sweating excessively
- Quivering chin
- Jutted chin
- Nose twitching or wrinkling
- Smacking lips in satisfaction
- Mouthing the lyrics of a song
- Licking the lips when nervous
- Sticking out the tongue while thinking
- Counting teeth with the tongue when distracted
- Biting the bottom lip
- Pulling at the bottom lip
- Biting the inside of the cheek
- Movement of the mouth: quivering, curling, pursed, twitching, tensed
- Sideways glance
- Likes to wink
- Fluttering eyelids
- Tendency to look down one’s nose
- Eyes that dart everywhere
- Tendency to avoid eye contact
- Always breaking eye contact
- Prolonged eye contact in conversation
- Looking down at feet while walking
- Rapid blinking when lying
- Frequently gazes off into space
- Has a thousand-yard stare
- Furrowed or knitted brows
- Movement of the eyes: rolling, squinting, twitching
- Description of the eyes: wide, glassy, crossed, dilated, narrowed
- Movement of the index finger: pointing, jabbing downwards, stabbing in the air
- Snapping fingers
- Arms crossed over chest
- Pinching the bridge of the nose
- Rubbing the temple
- Steepled hands
- Standing with hands clasped behind back
- Biting fingernails
- Doodling absently
- Wiping clammy hands
- Tightly clenched hands
- Running a hand through the hair
- Rubbing the eyes
- Touching the nose
- Stroking chin in thought
- Standing with hands in pocket
- Picking or pinching at the flesh
- Tugging at ear
- Tracing scars without thinking
- Covering mouth with a hand when smiling
- Rubbing the tips of fingers together
- Hooking a thumb in pockets while standing
- Braiding hair automatically
- Covering mouth while chewing or laughing
- Passing a hand over the face when tired
- Flexing fingers
- Cracking knuckles
- Drumming fingers on a surface
- Wild gesturing while talking
- Twiddling thumbs
- Swinging arms back and forth when walking
- Shrugging shoulders
- Dropping shoulders
- Swaying while standing
- Slouching, slumping posture
- Tight, drawn-in shoulders when sitting
- Broad stance when standing
- Crossing legs when sitting
- Foot drags while walking
- Foot stamping
- Foot tapping
- Legs will uncontrollably shake
- Strides quickly when walking
- Stands too close to others when talking
- Knees knocking against each other
- Rocking back and forth on heels
- Shifting weight from one foot to the other
- Pacing back and forth in a room
- Sitting, legs apart
- Bouncing leg up and down in a chair
Or: how does your character interact with their surroundings and external objects?
- Taking glasses off and cleaning them
- Peering over glasses
- Adjusting or pushing up glasses
- Putting earpiece of glasses in mouth
- Has a cigarette perpetually dangling out of mouth
- Buttoning and unbuttoning coat with no purpose
- Always sitting on the very edge of chair
- Hands habitually on coat lapels
- Chewing the tip of a pen or pencil
- Jingling money in pockets
- Playing with the marker
- Tugging at pants before sitting
- Tearing at a napkin at the table
- Checking watch repeatedly
- Using a toothpick at all times
- Touching up makeup constantly
- Repeatedly checking cell phone
- Twirling a pencil at a desk
- Clicking a ballpoint pen open and close
- Playing with a Rubix Cube when bored
- Fiddling with earrings
- Shredding paper without thinking
- Peeling labels from bottles
- Bending paperclips in half
- Twisting the rings on fingers
- Tipping chair back
- Leaning against the wall while talking
- Tugging at collar of shirt when nervous
- Smacking gum
Mannerisms are here to help
Ultimately, character mannerisms are only a small part of the bigger picture of character development. They should help reveal who your character is and that in and of itself will take some more work on your part. To understand your character on a deeper level, you can go here to download a free character profile template. Or if you’d like some character development exercises, here are eight of the best ones that you can use.
So whatever mannerisms you choose in the end, remember that it should tie into your character’s personality, background, and upbringing. If you follow that route, you won’t stray far from reaching your ultimate goal: the creation of a memorable character.