Now, on to Part Four: Tics and Mannerisms
This is often very similar to physical traits, and there is plenty of room for overlap, but there are also distinctions.
One way that a mannerism might overlap with a physical description is in compensations.
As I mentioned in the last section, you could describe someone as having a limp, and that’s a physical trait, but they might compensate for that limp by shuffling their feet. Your character might be exceptionally tall, and compensate for feeling awkward by slouching. Conversely, they might compensate for being short by wearing high heels. Someone with acne scars might wear lot of makeup.
Compensations can also be in the form of attitudes and behaviors. Like the bully who picks on others because he feels small himself, people often project the opposite of how they feel about themselves.
Someone who feels like his opinion isn’t that important may talk louder and more forcefully than those around him in order to make it seem as though his words have value. Someone who feels like she is unattractive to men might go out of her way to tell everyone how many men are pursuing her and are interested in her.
People who are self-conscious about a physical trait, like a scar or a birthmark, may dress in a way that calls attention to their style or their flair or their body in order to draw attention away from the thing they’re self-conscious about.
Another way mannerisms might overlap with physical description is in conjunction with each other. Someone with curly hair might twirl their fingers in their hair. Someone with severe allergies might rub their nose or eyes often. Someone with eczema might scratch their arms frequently.
Often, mannerisms are totally unconscious behaviors. If it’s a habit, it may be something they could control if they were aware of it, like rubbing their nose, wringing their hands, playing with their hair.
I have one character who is very overweight, and when he is excited or eager, he rubs his fat, red hands together.
If it’s a tic, it’s usually not something they have any control over. Tics are often associated with Tourette’s syndrome. Hollywood has sensationalized Tourette’s and made it synonymous with loud, uncontrolled outbursts of language, particularly words like curse words. However, it is much more common and typically much less severe than it is portrayed in the movies or on TV.
Common tics are often uncontrolled blinking, or making strange noises like humming or squeaking. These things can be very distracting to the people around the person suffering from them, but they aren’t doing it to be annoying—it’s a physical condition that cannot be helped.
I knew a man who ended every sentence with a “hmm” so it sounded like every sentence was a question. “It’s time for church, hmm?” “We’re out of milk, hmm?” “I think grass is better for volleyball than sand, hmm?” I think he probably had no idea he was doing it, and if he did, couldn’t control it.
Tics and mannerisms can be portrayed by physical gestures or vocal intonations. They can be conscious or unconscious. Controllable or not.
Remember, most people have some sort of habitual mannerism, but most are not noticeable and certainly not irritating to their casual contacts. And, while tics are not rare, they’re not very common, either.
If every character in your story has a distinctive mannerism, it will quickly become overwhelming for your reader. Instead of helping a specific character to pop out and come alive on the page, it will end up making your descriptions muddy and overly complicated.
Pick one or two characters who have something really distinctive in the form of mannerisms or tics, and use those to enhance specific characters, but don’t overdo it.