Tips for Writers: Subconscious Mannerisms

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.

About mitchteemley

Writer, Filmmaker, Humorist, Thinker-about-stuffer
This entry was posted in Books, Humor, Memoir, Story Power, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to Tips for Writers: Subconscious Mannerisms

  1. Matt says:

    You just introduced me to both the Johari window (awesome!) and an entire new avenue to explore while storytelling.

    Thank you, Mitch. Great post. Cheers, sir.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Very useful. Thank you, Mitch!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow! I started maintaining a catalogue. Now I know how to best use it. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow – that is food for thought. Interesting new layers. Danny is a most interesting example – would never have made that connection on my own.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting new tool for my characters. Thanks

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Great advice. Thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. ashes4him says:

    Thank you, for your inspiring post and suggestions. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. atimetoshare.me says:

    Great observations. As you know, this is one of the tricks an actor uses to flesh out his character. Every human being is multi dimensional, which makes him unique. The more details we include, the more our characters will jump off the page into the reader’s imagination.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. frenchc1955 says:

    Reblogged this on charles french words reading and writing and commented:
    This is an excellent post on writing from Mitch Teemley.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. hannahtk says:

    I’d never heard of the Johari Window. So fascinating. Thanks for the education. I am completely taken with characters and mannerisms, thanks for expounding on that.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. cricketmuse says:

    Good point. Quirky additions certainly add depth to characters.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Awesome tip Mitch. Thank you very much!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. MJ's Mommy says:

    Thanks for the tips!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. adammuly says:

    The character catalogue sounds like a great idea! Thanks for the tips!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Excellent pointers! Thanks, Mitch!!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. gpavants says:

    Mitch,

    I agree that good characters need mannerisms. My character, Levy, studies people hands and he can tell a lot about gestures.

    Thanks,

    Gary

    Liked by 3 people

  17. brunniegetchell says:

    Thank You for these tips. Very helpful. Can’t say I’ve ever thought about focusing on mannerisms when I’m describing a character in my blog. So, now this is a new tool to use.
    Thanks again,

    Brunnie

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Ginny says:

    Loved this post, especially the anecdote about your teacher’s nose. As an ex-teacher, very aware of my mannerisms being observed, a writer and a director, I’d love to write a post about how your advice also applied to actors. Would you mind if I made a link to your article?

    Liked by 1 person

  19. A “Character Catalogue”…LOVE IT! Thanks for this!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Pingback: Tips for Writers: Subconscious Mannerisms — Mitch Teemley – Write Already! Professional Copyediting/Proofreading

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