My high school drama teacher had a quirky habit: first he’d pull on his nose, and then he’d push on it. One day, in the midst of a discussion about mannerisms, he told us where this habit came from: As a child he’d grown anxious that when adults said he had a “cute little pug nose” they really meant “he looks like a pig.” So he’d begun pulling on it to make it longer. Then one day, his grandmother told him that if he didn’t stop tugging it his nose would end up looking like a sausage. That was even worse! But he couldn’t break the habit of pulling on it, so he adopted a second mannerism of “putting it back.” This two-part nose-fix had long since become a subconscious mannerism. Which is to say that he was (normally) unaware he was doing it.
Good writers imbue their characters, whether invented or historical, with “borrowed” traits and mannerisms. But not all characteristics are conscious. In fact, two of the four categories in the Johari Window used by psychologists to analyze human behavior, are behaviors we are unware of. The strongest writing will mirror real life by depicting subconscious, as well as conscious, mannerisms.
I wrote previously about an ABC TV special my band The Daily Planet appeared on some years back. One of the soloists on that show was a Texan named Danny O’Connor. Danny was normally down-to-earth. But he’d change when a woman approached, any woman, even though he had a wife and a baby at home. He’d track her with his eyes and become “handsy,” touching her repeatedly. We figured he just needed to reign in his hormones. But…
Almost ten years later I stumbled across a best-seller entitled Canary: The Story of a Transsexual. It was about a young man who’d undergone a sex change (controversial back then) to become a woman named Canary Conn. “Holy crap!” I blurted aloud in the bookstore, “It’s Danny!” And then I understood. Danny didn’t watch and touch women because he wanted them, he watched and touched women because he wanted to be one.
Suggestion: Create a Character Catalogue. And every time you notice someone with interesting character traits, add a thumbnail description of that person to your Catalogue. Then, when you’re writing, peruse your catalogue for intriguing quirks and mannerisms with which to flesh out your story. (If you’re writing non-fiction, you’ll probably do this in real time, i.e. as you’re researching.)
Underpinning your characters with subconscious mannerisms will add layers of subtext to your writing. Whether you choose to explain these mannerisms or leave the reader to ruminate over them, or to reveal why at the end of your story,
You’ll have added significant depth to your writing.