Knowing Your Characters – Part 2

All people have their own peculiar mannerisms. Sometimes they are immediately obvious to others; sometimes they are only noticeable in certain situations (possibly when emotions are running high). A person may make a certain movement with their arms, legs, fingers, shoulders, or facial features when they are particularly anxious or stressed, fearful, angry, or even when they are anticipating a happy event.

It may help your story to give your character some “tell” to bring the reader into the character’s state of mind to raise anticipation whenever this “telling” action happens. In my novel Julia’s Violinist, Karl had a tell. His eye twitched when he was angry and the reader knew that perhaps some explosive action was building.

Other “tells” could be:

slight shrugging of the shoulders

facial tics of all sorts

slight jerks of the hand or shaking of the wrist

rubbing the thigh

squinting the eyes

wringing the hands

stammering

stretching

quivering lips

chewing fingernails

twirling a lock of hair

biting lower lip

quietly humming a few notes

taking a deep breath through the nostrils.

“People watching” is a good way to gather a collection of ideas for flinches, tics, or subconscious behaviours to add to your list of possibilities.

When you’re sitting in the car waiting for someone, or if you’re in a coffee shop,  always try to have a notebook handy. It’s a perfect time to do some people watching. You may not have time to see the repetition of a mannerism, but you can get ideas for some small actions that you can develop into an ongoing “tell” in your novel’s characters. Jot down the most obvious behaviours or anything special you notice about passersby and you’ll soon have quite a collection to choose from when building your character.

Even if you don’t pick up on a flinch or a nervous tic, you might notice some other bonus — a wild flair in the way they are dressed, or a different gait — something special about that person, that you can use to give your character some unique identifying trait.

If you have introduced the behaviour subtly in previous scenes, the reader can, in later scenes, surmise who the character is without him or her even being named.

A few examples:

“You can’t do that. I won’t let you.” His cheek twitched, as he backed away.

He hummed a few tuneless notes and picked up the carving knife.

She worried her thumbnail down to the quick. She knew what was behind that door, but it was her only chance to escape.

*****

The unique behaviours you choose for your characters need not, and probably should not, be too weird, so as to remain believable. Neither do you want to overdo the frequency of the unique behaviour appearing. A small identifying trait that pops up once in a while is usually enough.

 

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