Characters with Nervous Gestures, Habits, and Qualifiers

Jan 4, 2023 | 2023 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze

by Lynn Hesse

On a trip to South Georgia for a Christmas family party, I noticed my grown son smoothing his beard and eyebrows or rubbing his nose. At first, the habits weren’t annoying, but after three hours on the road, I wanted to pull his hands away from his face. Following how often he and his fiancée smoke became my second pastime in the backseat as we flew down I-475 in their white Dodge Charger toward Hawkinsville, Georgia.

Lynn Hesse

Tracking how these ramblings translate into character development, gestures and habits can allow the reader to realize if the character is anxious, excited, or bored. In my crime novel A Matter of Respect, Murder in Mobile Series, Book Two, Marci Eplund, a reporter and the main character’s friend, keeps a stress ball at the Tribune and practices card tricks to keep her nervous energy in check. It’s not a surprise that sarcasm runs throughout her dialogue.

Watching people’s body language and quirks, a helpful exercise in determining what was happening between family members at the Christmas gathering, kept me busy. The cocking of the head meant flirtation in one instant and disdain in another. The situation and context drove the narrative, and I—like our readers—interpreted it.

As writers, we can qualify and direct using repeated phrases, actions, and objects favored by our characters. For example, the orphan Marci wears Doc Martens, and the diminutive Assistant Professor Gerome’s love interest sports tight shirts and high heel boots. The protagonist Carly Redmund counts to ten when angered by a remark and talks to her Aunt Linda when she needs an ego boost. As a reoccurring term of endearment, she calls Carly Missy Beaucoup.

Also, we judge or assume things about each other based on the cars we drive. For example, what conclusions did you gather from the mention of the Dodge Charger in the first paragraph? With blue-collar roots, Carly drives a modest Honda. Her police buddy Viola from Charleston rides a Harley and revs the motorcycle’s engine by turning the throttles on the handlebars with long sculptured nails. Tim Price—the not-so-confident county coroner—drives a bright red Hyundai.

Of course, we can flip the narrative showing the character’s facade as a disguise for the person lurking inside. Consider Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter in the crime series, as he displays a mild-mannered pathologist persona while being a ruthless killer. He is one of my all-time favorite villains that I love and hate. In my work, A Matter of Respect, Murder in Mobile Series, Book Two, a revered veteran cop conspires in multiple burglaries and tampers with evidence in the murder of a fellow officer, allowing Carly to right the wrong. The reader’s faith that heroes will save us from an abusive authority, evil monsters, or chaos is maintained.

Writers can overuse any qualifiers and nervous habits in characterization on the page and distract the reader. Moderation is the key. Maybe. Isn’t it fun to control the narrative and create personalities that come alive on the page?

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Lynn Hesse is an award-winning author of the novels: Well of Rage, Another Kind of Hero, The Forty Knots Burn, and A Matter of Respect. Trying out the short story market her short story “Shrewd Women” was published by Onyx Publications and Discovery Podcast in 2022. Bitter Love,” a humorous view of a homicide detective having a lousy day, appeared in Crimeucopia, The I’s Have It by Murderous Ink Press, 2021, United Kingdom. “Jewel’s Hell” was in the Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology edited by Elizabeth Zelvin, published in 2019 by Level Best Books. She is a retired police officer and lives with her husband and their six feral cats near Atlanta, Georgia, USA where she performs in several dance troupes.

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1 Comment

  1. Lorie, thank you for giving me a slot on your blog. Fun! Happy New Year to the SMS members, Lynn


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