Skip to content

Creating Credible Characters–Mannerisms and Quirks

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Why did Pirates of the Caribbean become such a successful film franchise? Jack Sparrow—Captain Jack Sparrow, of course. If the story had just been about a down-on-his-luck pirate whose crew had mutinied against him and who was merely trying to get his ship back, it might not have been more than just a flash in the pan. What kept us going back to see it time and again and got us to buy the DVDs? It was Johnny Depp’s inspired performance of Captain Jack Sparrow and the mannerisms and quirks he gave to the character . . . the staggering, the always wondering “why is the rum gone?”, the flirting with Elizabeth, the way he got into other characters’ faces, his trademark facial expressions, the way he runs . . . shall I continue? Never in film history has there been another character like Jack Sparrow—Captain Jack Sparrow. That’s why we love him so much.

The level of quirkiness Johnny Depp brought to that character most likely would not translate well to the written page. It works fine in the movies because they are physical gags that we quickly interpret visually and understand. But if you tried to describe his facial expressions, it would take too many words and would slow the pace of the story too much. Our characters’ mannerisms and quirks will arise out of who they are—so as you go through the personalization process with them, be looking for things that can become something unique to help define your character for the reader.

This is yet another area where the character casting process comes into play for me—the more photos/movie clips I can find of my real world templates, the easier it is for me to develop physical mannerisms for my characters. Stefan (The Best Laid Plans) slouches constantly because he’s very tall (6’6″) and is self-conscious about it (found several images of the template, Goran Visnjic where he has one shoulder dropped or is kind of hunched over, and this became a defining mannerism for the character). Anne (HEI) is rarely seen not smiling, even when things aren’t going right. This is part of her self-defense mechanism. If she’s smiling, no one will know what she’s thinking inside. In every picture of the template for Anne, the model (Emme) is smiling. But it’s a practiced expression. It’s the eyes where her real emotion and thoughts lie . . . just waiting for George to figure them out!

Sometimes, characters have developed mannerisms out of necessity. William, for example, as a captain in the Royal Navy in the early 19th century, has had to learn to hide his emotions, to tamp down his anger, to swallow back his amusement. While it is helpful in maintaining order and discipline aboard ship, it will become a major problem in his relationship with Julia. In an environment of constant movement and activity, William, when in deep contemplation or listening to his officers give their reports, stands very still, hands clasped behind his back, face expressionless. Can you imagine being comfortable expressing your feelings to someone like that?

In the same novel, in contrast to William, his best friend’s wife is constantly in motion, constantly talking, shows her excitement by reaching out and grabbing someone by the wrist and bouncing up and down on her toes. This serves as a point of comparison as William falls in love with Julia—to see her calmness compared to their mutual friend, to see how she, like him, can control her emotions, can remain still, can be silent when the occasion calls for it.

Do all quirks and mannerisms come from deep internal processes? Some yes, some no. Sometimes we just pick up on little habits/quirks because someone else around us exposed us to them. In my early 20s, I became a huge fan of Star Trek because a coworker and friend got me hooked on it—I even attended several Trek conventions with her. Now, I cannot remember the last time I watched an episode (even though they’re in reruns on G4 and the SciFi channel all the time). It was a phase, something I enjoyed for a while, but not something that was a part of who I am. But my love for movies—including science fiction and fantasy—is a part of who I am. (In fact, I was watching Lord of the Rings: Return of the King as I wrote this.) Another quirk: I write romance novels, but I can’t stand most “romantic” movies—if they’re comedies, they’re usually so silly as to be stupid, and if they’re dramas, they’re usually tearjerkers which annoy me.

In Law & Order: Criminal Intent, when the actress Kathryn Erbe was pregnant, they wrote it into the script and gave Bobby Goren (Vincent d’Onofrio) a substitute partner. In one episode, he’s sitting at a computer looking through someone’s files, with this substitute looking over his shoulder. She sighs and he starts to move, telling her that if she doesn’t like the speed at which he’s going, he’ll let her do it—Eames likes to drive so he lets her drive, if this new partner wants to scroll faster, he’ll let her do that. It served as a great insight into his character that the reason Eames is always shown driving is because she didn’t like the way he drove. Maybe it’s a control issue, or maybe he was just too slow or erratic behind the wheel and Eames didn’t feel safe, but these are the kinds of mannerisms that can pop up that can actually lead us back into the personalizing stage and give us greater understanding of our characters.

Of course, like Captain Jack Sparrow, some of our quirks are just quirks and are there for the enjoyment of the reader and the annoyance of the other characters (these work well in romantic comedies, especially).

What are some mannerisms your characters have that you aren’t sure where they come from? Have you personalized them (asked, “Why?” / “So what?”)? What are some fun quirks you have given or can give to your characters that will make them more unique, more realistic?

  1. Wednesday, June 20, 2007 1:53 pm

    Unusual foods or food combinations. Fidgety habits, like swiping one’s hair to the side. Things like breaking out in a sweat, but only on the nose, when nervous. Neck cracking. Quoting song lyrics or breaking into song unexpectedly. Speech patterns.

    All one has to do is look around. All of the above come from my immediate family. (We’re a strange bunch, huh?)

    I think it works best in writing, though, when the author repeats it several times up front and then doesn’t mention the habit/quirk again until absolutely crucial to the story action. If done correctly, the reader will envision the character doing said habit/quirk even when the author doesn’t say so explicitly.


  2. Wednesday, June 20, 2007 4:05 pm

    Boy howdy, you ask tough questions. I love it! Aside from a tendency to put too much sighing in??? I’m not sure what my characters do. One twirls her hair around her fingers when she’s thinking, and also bites her lip.

    In the one I started today, a secondary character uses the word “Well” a lot and the protagonist clasps his hands behind his back under his suit coat when he’s thinking.


  3. Wednesday, June 20, 2007 9:53 pm

    One of my heroes will not make eye contact with someone when he’s nervous. Goes back to his childhood when he would look at his uncle and get slapped. It drives his girl crazy because she loves looking at his eyes.


  4. Wednesday, October 31, 2007 8:33 am

    Hi Kaye, I’ve just come across your excellent site. I’m a creative writing tutor and am currently running a course online and at a college. Today we looked at characterisation. I’ve just recommended this article to my students.



  1. Creating Credible Characters Refresher «
  2. Character Tags in Fiction
  3. Make POV Work for You: POV Begins with Character «

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: