Character is… (Part 2.5) – Gestures and Mannerisms are…

This is the sixth in an ongoing series of StoryCrafting/StoryTelling posts I’m publishing for my own benefit; explaining something helps me determine if I’ve truly learned it or am simply parroting what others have offered. I learn my weak spots, what I need to study, et cetera.

Previous offerings include:

  • Atmosphere is…
  • Character is… (Part 1)
  • Character is… (Part 2.1) – Exposition is…
  • Character is… (Part 2.2) – Description is…
  • Character is… (Part 2.3) – Action is…
  • Character is… (Part 2.4) – Shading is…

    And note that I’ll update/upgrade/edit these posts as I learn more.

    Case in point, I published the last post in this series on 15 Apr 2020. I’ve been studying since then.

    Gestures and Mannerisms – establish character by the little things they do, the non-conscious things they do, their habits.


    Think of Gestures and Mannerisms as a subtle form of Action but instead of a character’s big movements defining them, their small, barely noticeable movements define them. An immediate example comes to mind in The Augmented Man‘s Ingman character; he’s constantly adjusting his mustache. The reader learns early on that Ingman grew a mustache to hide a scar he got from a woman in a bar. But he claims he got it in the line of duty and received a medal for combat action. His constantly fidgeting with his mustache reminds the reader that Ingman knows he’s a lie, an imposter, and also why everyone else treats him as such.

    The other use of Gestures and Mannerisms is to provide an interesting yet subtle character trait. You can reference/identify them by that single trait throughout your story and use it to hide/reveal things from the other characters.

    An example of subtle character traits is in just about everything Dashiell Hammett ever wrote. Sam Spade is identified by his mannerisms as are Nick and Nora Charles, even when those identifying them don’t know who they’re describing. Ditto Hammett’s characters; Joel Cairo is recognized even when his identity is unknown. The reader knows who he is although the character doing the describing does not, hence the reader knows there’s a threat and is concerned for the characters involved.

    My love of Hammett and similar authors’ writings led to write MindMaster Case File 455: The UnResponsive Male

    Gestures and Mannerisms as Character Introductions
    Imagine you’re working on something and you want to introduce a Main, Principal, Central, or Primary character, someone who plays a major role in your story, someone who’ll appear in many if not all scenes, someone who requires detailing to be believable.

    You could introduce that character with an expository lump (sometimes an info dump is useful).

    Another option (one I prefer in general) is to establish a character through 1-2 telling details, then reveal the character slowly so readers can absorb the character in full.

    Consider that “in full” part. Introduce a complex character via an expository lump and you run the risk of readers forgetting some useful aspect of the character’s makeup, perhaps something you need the reader to remember later on in the story. Consider the following:

    Oria was half-an-hour older than her sister Pora. She cut her brown hair close once each month except for a lock free to grow in front. Her nose is flat from many battles. Short and muscular, most men needed two hands to lift her sword. Pora, tall, blue-eyed and almost beautiful, was the lithe one and preferred the distance afforded by arrows to close quarters combat. Stealth was her forte, Oria simply leapt into the middle and slaughtered whatever came close to her blade, friend or foe.

    First, writing the above was hard work. Writing straight exposition took two days mostly because I kept wanting to get some story in there. Even as it is, I couldn’t keep all the story out.

    Granted, there’s not a lot of detail in the above and there’s still too much too soon. Heaven forbid the author get the listed character traits confused and gives Oria blue-eyes or makes Pora muscular by accident; the author-reader contract is violated. Remember, any character who can be described in 2-3 sentences is a stereotype. I recognize it’s useful to create character biographies – they make a handy reference. However, let the character develop as the writing goes on.

    A greater challenge is that the characters are now locked. Neither the author nor the reader can add or take anything away. So much is revealed the author runs the risk of violating the reader’s concept of the character. Do that and they stop reading because you’ve not played fair with them. You’ve violated one of the rules of the author-reader agreement; characters can grow and change but that growth and change must be documented in the story. Create a recognizable consistency error with a primary, main, et cetera, character and your reader will stop reading. Again, you’ve not played fair.

    Now let’s use 1-2 telling details as part of the story:

    Oria brushed back a stray lock of dull brown hair with the hilt of her sword. The hilt came back bloody and she smiled. “That ‘splains the burning in me eye.” She dripped some water from a gourd strapped to her back onto the tail of her shirt and used it to clean the sword hilt. “Don’t want you gettin’ sticky, being held. Not good, that.”
    Her sister, Pora, placed a knee on the spine of one Vestun warrior still breathing and snapped his neck. “You care more for your weapons than you do for your eye.”
    “I’m gettin’ there. Be easy, now.” She dripped some more water on her shirt tail and dabbed at the eye.
    Pora stood beside her. “Wound’s up a knuckle.”
    Oria moved the moist cloth slowly. “Bleedin’ stopped.”
    “Aye. But you’ll need a Merchant, sew it up proper.”

    I’ve shared that with people and asked them to describe Oria and Pora to me. It’s amazing the details they have; tallish women, muscular, long hair, probably pirates of some kind, are skilled with weapons and hand-to-hand combat, …

    People tell me when Oria and Pora lived, the type of country their from, some times they’ll talk about the childhood they had, …

    It’s amazing.

    Because none of it’s in what I wrote. Some is inferred, little is stated.

    The best part about the above is that I (the author) have provided only 1-2 telling details. About Oria. I’m free to drop a few more details about Oria and Pora as the narrative continues. My hope is by introducing them via action (Pora snaps someone’s neck), interaction (they talk), and implied threat (they’ve been in some kind of battle), the reader’s interest is tweaked enough to read more.

    While the reader is reading more of the story, I can add to those 1-2 original telling details without violating the reader’s concept of the characters because the reader – by continuing to read – has signaled they want to know more. So long as I don’t violate the original 1-2 details, I can slowly(!) add more details.

    Your thoughts?

    Care for a critique of your writing? Let me know.