Wednesday, April 6, 2011

M is for Mannerisms

According to, a mannerism is “a habitual or characteristic manner, mode, or way of doing something; a distinctive quality or style, as in behavior or speech.” In writing, mannerisms are used for several purposes:

Adding authenticity. Details of behaviour and habits help to make characters realistic.

Distinguishing characters. Unique habits or actions set characters apart.

Showing personality or emotions. Effective mannerisms fit the situation and/or personality of the character. They have a purpose, adding another layer to your story.

Do kids have different mannerisms than adults? Definitely. For example, a nervous kid might chew on their sleeve, whereas an adult might instead rub their lip. In writing for middle graders, you want to capture mannerisms that are specific to kids. Good ways to come up with kid-friendly mannerisms:

1. Search through your memory and list all the different mannerisms you remember from childhood friends and relatives. Here are a few to get you started:

-chewing erasers off pencils
-jiggling a leg at the table
-scraping at fingernail polish
-bouncing instead of standing still
-mimicking an adult with a deep voice
-standing and observing instead of getting into the action
-pretending to kick a ball while standing in a group
-clutching at a shirt
-nibbling instead of taking big bites

2. Use your powers of observation and study real kids in action. Pay special attention to details of action, speech and even how they might be subtly showing feelings.

3. Read MG books to get a feel for how other authors use mannerisms to develop their characters.

4. Watch child actors in movies or TV to get a feel for actions that might set your characters apart.

Okay, so now you have a list of kid's mannerisms. How do you use them in your writing?

Remember less is more. Too much focus on mannerisms could detract from your characters and story. A couple of mannerisms are probably enough for each main character. Don’t overwhelm your reader. Choose your details carefully and make them count.

Be consistent. Make sure those carefully crafted mannerisms stay with your character all the way through your story. One tip is to keep a list of mannerisms and traits associated with each character and use it to check for consistency during revisions.

Try to be original. How many books have you read where people roll their eyes when they are exasperated? Or where their lips tremble when they’re feeling upset? While sometimes using these almost universal mannerisms can get across what you want, other times you might want your character to show more individuality. Think up a unique behaviour that you haven’t seen in every MG novel you’ve read for at least one of you character's mannerisms.

Have you noticed or used any effective mannerisms in your writing? Do you have any tips to share?

As always, if you are aware of any additional links that would be useful, let me know and I’ll add them.

Mervyn Love discusses the basics of using mannerisms.

This great article at Plot to Punctuation teaches you how to use mannerisms to strengthen characters during the revision process.

Wendy Toliver over at Books, Boys, Buzz gives some excellent advice on how to use body language to bring out character.

Here's a peek at some common kid mannerisms related to stress to help get you thinking about those details of how kids behave.

Nicole Humprey talks about thinking beyond obvious mannerisms in trying to capture a person’s uniqueness.


  1. I like your advice to not use this too much. I might pick one and use it rarely.

  2. Mannerisms are fascinating things. It's the reason I like to people watch.

    Great advise.

  3. Terrific post! My creative wheels immediately started spinning and I brainstormed some ways to incorporate your advice into my WIP.

  4. I love reading about characters' quirks and mannerisms, especially in MG books! Cool post :)

  5. Thanks for the links! I'll definitely check them out.

    One thing that I struggle with is finding something "authentic" as a mannerism instead of cliche. But I think as we get to know our characters better, we find something unique.

  6. I think adding a mannerism can add more depth and texture to a story, so I'm glad my post is helpful!

    Karen makes an interesting observation about making it authentic vs. a cliche. I often struggle with that, especially nervous tics or habits that show emotions. It's hard to get beyond the standard phrases you always find in books, but worth working at.

  7. Great post. One of my characters wears the same shirt everyday. Nasty, but kids do it.


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