Character dialogue can be repetitive. This is especially true if your book is part of a series or if your novel has characters that talk frequently to one another. Repetition can get boring for your readers. How do you keep your dialogue unique?
A character mannerism is a bit of movement, a specific habit or a repeated saying that helps the reader remember who is speaking. One of my characters was a teacher and he opened every sentence with “I’ve got a story for you.”
This way of talking felt more natural to me than “So.”
Another way to use character mannerisms is to find phrases that describe the character’s personality. A phrase like, “Yeah, but the rent was cheaper there” or “I can’t decide between a truck and a minivan” tells the reader a lot about the character without having to say his name.
So when you want to show the reader who is talking without saying, “Sally said…” try to use character mannerisms to give your dialogue the personality it deserves.
What are Character Mannerisms?
Character mannerisms are words, phrases, expressions, ticks or unique physical movements that tell the reader who is speaking. They may be words that the character has learned or expressions they are known to use.
Character mannerisms can also be something physical the character does, like tapping his fingers on the desk or fidgeting with his hair. Think of how you know who is speaking at a party, a concert or a board meeting, or just standing around talking to friends.
Even though the conversation is verbal, the reader knows who is talking because they see the person making the gestures and expressions that make him stand out from the crowd. How do we translate that for a book?
You can think of a character’s mannerisms like we think of a car’s sound.
When you want to get people’s attention, what do you do? You turn on your hazards. It’s a good way to get noticed, but it’s also hard to ignore.
With your dialogue, you can do the same thing.
The goal is to give your characters an identity so that the reader can always tell who is speaking by their words and gestures. It’s important that the mannerisms you choose are noticeable, but not overly intrusive.
They also have to be specific to that character and reflect his personality. If you have a ten year old with autism, it makes sense to choose a movement like picking up a piece of lint from the floor as an identifying character trait. If your fifteen year old loves fantasy novels, a specific word or phrase could make a good character mannerism.
Again, what’s unique about your characters?
How To Come Up With Character Mannerisms
Don’t be afraid to use the ones your characters already have. You might have already written the dialogue. Look for a line or a saying that you find yourself using repeatedly. Think about the character and what is unique about him. Maybe he has an accent or is left handed. He could say, “You’re the one that bought the cookies, aren’t you?” or “I bet it’s you.”
It’s not just the dialogue that can benefit from character mannerisms.
When your character is the narrator, you can use their dialogue to show the personality behind the narration. For example, an old man might pause before he speaks. He might hem and haw, and wiggle his fingers, and then start the sentence over again. A young woman might say, “Yeah, but…” when she disagrees with someone. A teenager might go on and on with “like.”
Each of these tells you something about the character who said it, but doesn’t take away from the flow of the story. Think of them like spice. A little goes a long way. You don’t want to be so heavy handed with character mannerisms that your character sounds weird, but you also don’t want them to disappear into the background.
Keep it small and simple. Find something that describes the character’s personality in a small way. Find something unique that will tell the reader who is talking without saying, “John said…”
Sometimes it’s important that you give your reader more information than just a few words. It might be important to tell the reader who is speaking because of something that happens in the story. For example, if one character punches another character in the face, or there is a scene where one character gets angry and slams his fist on the table, it might be important for the reader to know which character is doing those things.
The reader needs to know if the character who punched the other one in the face is the same character who punched him a second time or a different character. The reader also needs to know if this is a one time thing or a habit.
Physical mannerisms can also be something like a limp or a scar. Both can help the reader know who is doing what action.
How to Create Physical Mannerisms
Physical mannerisms are something that the character does while speaking. The reader sees it and the dialogue lets him know who is doing it. For example, one of my characters was old and he let out a sigh before he said something, and then tapped his fingers on the desk when he was done. You could describe it as the character letting out a sigh. The reader will know what the sigh means by what comes after it, “I think you should take a vacation.”
If you describe the character taking a long breath or sighing, the reader will assume he was done talking.
When a character looks to the left before he says something, the reader can assume he is lying or hiding something. When the character scratches his head when he talks about something he isn’t sure about, the reader knows that he is confused.
There are many things that your character could do. He could always rub the back of his neck when he was talking to someone he wasn’t sure he should trust. He could clean his fingernails. She could pull at the skirt of her dress. He could bite his lip. She could look to the side. They could point with their thumb.
These are physical motions that the reader will recognize from real life and it will help them get to know the characters better.
A character mannerism can show the reader who is speaking without saying their name. It can help the reader understand what’s happening in the scene. It can make the dialogue more interesting, or show the reader the character’s personality.
When you’re choosing your character’s mannerisms, look for something that will tell the reader who is speaking without using names and something that will be a useful tool to create your story.
List of Mannerisms
This is a list of some character mannerisms you can use in your writing:
- Letting out a deep breath
- Glancing up at the ceiling
- Rubbing his fingers together
- Clutching his stomach
- Rubbing his hands together
- Crossing her arms
- Letting out a heavy breath
- Pointing to herself
- Placing her hand over her heart
- Placing her hand on her heart
- Putting her hand on his shoulder
- Pointing her index finger at him
- Giving him a thumbs up
- Clenching his hands
- Tugging on her shirt
- Leaning back
- Letting out a heavy sigh
- Shaking his head
- Folding his arms across his chest
- Holding his stomach
- Covering his mouth
- Biting her fingernail
- Placing her hand on his shoulder
- Looking down
- Closing her eyes
- Licking her lips
- Pinching the bridge of her nose
- Lifting his shoulders
- Shrugging his shoulders
- Glancing over her shoulder
- Running his fingers over his lips
- Letting out a nervous breath
- Rubbing his fingers over his lips
- Twirling his pen around his fingers
- Twirling her hair
- Placing her hands on her cheeks
- Putting her hand over her heart
- Putting her hand on her heart
- Tugging his collar
- Stretching his neck
- Rubbing his forehead
- Making a fist with one hand and punching the other hand
- Pinching the bridge of his nose
- Looking back and forth between people
- Folding her arms across her chest
- Covering his mouth with his hand
- Scratching his ear
- Clenching his fists
- Clenching his jaw
- Putting his hand on his stomach
- Biting his lip
- Biting his lower lip
- Throat clearing
- Letting out a nervous giggle
- Rubbing his chin
- Putting her hands on her hips
- Sitting on his heels
- Looking over his shoulder
- Tapping a pencil on a desk
- Furrowing her brow
- Opening her mouth
- Opening his mouth
- Biting her lip
- Placing her hand on his arm
- Shrugging her shoulders
A character mannerism helps a reader identify a character by adding personality to his dialogue. The more characters you write, the more creative you will get. I hope this helps you learn how to make your characters unique.
Other Posts You Might Like:
- How to Write a Thriller
- How to Structure a Story: Understanding Narrative Structure
- Elements of Plot and How to Use it in a Story
Join the Commaful Storytelling Community
Commaful takes everything you love about stories and makes it a bite-sized, on-the-go experience. Fanfiction? Poetry? Short stories? You’ll find it all!