Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
A writer and I were recently talking about variety in character habits and motions, the physical movements of characters that both distinguish characters and add movement to a scene. At almost the same time, I was reading reviews for a quite popular novel that got panned by critics for, among other faults, the overuse of repetitive character motions and habits.
You’ve probably discovered that your own characters either have a repertoire of maybe two motions or habits that they use constantly or they’re never in motion unless they’re involved in something big—running to a treasure or running from the bad guys.
But in fiction, we should see characters in motion. Even when they’re sitting, it’s unlikely that they don’t move or fidget or tap on the table or bite their nails or push hair off their faces.
Be sure to give your characters a variety of common movements and habits that show who they are as they inhabit your fictional world. At the same time, remember that such movements are typically part of the scene’s background and should not take center stage unless that’s the point of including such motions. You don’t want character actions looking like individual shots of stop-motion figures. That is, readers don’t need to see every little movement a character makes. Just give readers enough to have them imagining what the characters are doing, whether the movement is a habitual one or something out of the ordinary.
Put characters in motion and then have them get down to business.
Also, be sure not to use the same action too many times. Readers will catch on to habitual actions after the second or third time a character moves a certain way. So three or four times across a novel may be sufficient for most actions. Or you can change the way you word how the movement is done so that it seems like a different motion while at the same time it’s familiar, just not annoyingly so.
Make the Movement Fit
~ To help you choose the right blend of motions, consider a character’s personality, the genre, the era, the character’s emotions, the viewpoint character’s personality and emotions (if the viewpoint character is the one noticing another character’s movements), and character experiences and education (to help with appropriate word choices to describe the movements).
~ Look for ways to develop a rhythm (or interrupt a rhythm) by adding movement or extending it, by putting it between lines of dialogue and by not putting it between lines of dialogue.
~ Use common movements to reveal character and to affect mood and tone. Use movements to push the conflict or influence the emotions of characters as well as readers.
~ Use movement to simply break up an otherwise static scene.
~ If you’ve got a talking-heads scene, where the characters seem to be two minds existing in limbo, with no bodies in motion and without the characters dealing with the physical setting, add some motion. Make characters touch and notice and influence and be influenced by their setting.
This may mean they pick up objects or slip on floors or pet dogs or sniff flowers.
It may mean they whistle or hum, snap their fingers or pick their teeth, put on lipstick, snap a rubber band, click a pen, or incessantly check their phone (or the communication device of the day).
~ Make your setting work for the story by influencing the characters, by making them do something they wouldn’t do in another setting.
A character sitting outside in the bright sun might mess with her sunglasses or keep moving out of the sun or fan herself.
A character tailing another character into a loud bar or concert might stick her fingers or pieces of napkins in her ears.
A man outside at twilight might smack at the bugs feasting on his skin, or he may try to catch and squash the bugs midair.
~ Make your characters fit the setting or make them look out of place, maybe not even knowing how to use items in the setting.
In a time-travel story, characters may not understand the technology of the era. So show them stumbling over and fumbling with objects. Put those characters in motion, and make that motion work for the story.
The point with actions, motions, and physical habits is that you want to include them without overdoing them. Too little and readers can’t see the characters. Too much and the forward motion of the story suffers as common physical movements overwhelm significant action and take on more importance than is warranted.
Consider your characters and their physical habits and motions. Decide what works for the characters and add those motions at appropriate intervals. Use a variety of actions for each character (so characters aren’t always whistling or biting their lips or drumming their fingers) while at the same time giving them actions that fit them as individuals and that fit other elements of the scene. You should strive for a variety of actions and motions that are specific to the character while also giving thought to the changing needs of the story.
Not every scene requires all characters to be in motion. Not all scenes require any character to be in motion.
In some scenes, the movement of one character is sufficient not only to show what that character is doing but also to imply what others are doing either in response to or as the impetus for the first character’s movements.
Some scenes can handle and might need multiple movements from multiple characters.
Use variety not only in the movements themselves, but in the way you address such movements throughout the story.
I’ve included a list of actions and motions and movements to give you ideas for the kinds of common movements most characters can make. (These are movements, habits, and mannerisms common to most people; specialized movement of unusual characters would be specific for those characters and their circumstances.) Use these as is or use them as a springboard to other habits and movements and motions.
Most are deliberate actions under the control of a character, but some are involuntary reactions. Use variety for both types of movements and habits.
There are other common movements; make your own list. Create a list not necessarily when you’re looking for everyday actions (which means your list will be colored by your current characters and the events of their stories), but at a time when you don’t need such a list. Let your mind explore and see what you can come up with. Watch friends and family members and include some of their quirks.
My list uses fairly common verbs to get you started—you’ll want to use story- and character-appropriate verbs for your own scenes.
I grouped the movements and habits according to the (major) body part involved to make it easier to find a particular one, yet there is some crossover between categories.
brush hair, twirl hair, pull out hair
crack neck, crane neck
lean forward, lean back or away, lean sideways
lift or lower head or face or chin
lift shoulders, relax shoulders, roll shoulders
roll head, cock head, turn head, tilt head
touch (drop) chin to chest
adjust glasses, push up glasses, pull down glasses
blink eyes, cross eyes, bat eyes, roll eyes
blot makeup, blot sweat, wipe off sweat
blow nose, pick nose, wipe nose, hold nose
massage forehead, rub temples
pick at blemish
play with beard or mustache
pull (tug) on ear, pick at ear, clean out ear
rub eyes, massage eyes
scratch nose or chin or head or ear
smooth eyebrows, pluck at eyebrows
wipe away tears
apply lipstick or ChapStick
bite lip, bite tongue
bite the end of a pen or pencil
blow bubbles (with gum, spit, water)
chew (pop) gum, chew tobacco
grind teeth; tense, tighten, or grip jaw
lick lips, smack lips, chew lips
pick at chapped lips
play with food
purse lips, squeeze lips together with fingers
put finger to lips (in thought or to shush someone)
sip tea or coffee (other drinks), gulp down alcoholic drinks
smoke, fiddle with cigarette
spit out food, spit out water
stick tongue out
suck on candy
tap teeth, pick teeth, bite nails
throw up (hurl, vomit, spew, upchuck, get sick, toss cookies, lose dinner, regurgitate)
touch tongue to lips
whistle, hum, make sounds with mouth
pull at curls, push hair behind ears, mess with barrettes or ribbons or hats
push hair off face (own face or the face of others)
cut nails, clean nails, paint nails, bite nails
hold someone’s hand
massage thumb or finger, massage (rub) wrist or sore joints
pick at nails/cuticles
pick at scab, push at bruise
play with cups, dinnerware, napkins, salt and pepper shakers, anything on a dinner table
roll a coin or pencil between fingers
rub hands together
rub hands up and down arms, up and down legs
suck thumb or finger
tap or drum fingers on self or object
toss ball (or other object) hand to hand, juggle objects
trace scars or injuries
wag, shake, or point finger
wrap arms around own body
bounce (kick) foot
check watch, check e-mail, check current devices
clean glasses (on cloth, under water, on clothes, with spit)
cross and uncross legs
dance (hop or bounce) from foot to foot
fiddle with radio or music device
fiddle (play) with rings, bracelets, necklace, earrings; twirl them; take them off, put them on; play with jewelry clasps
freeze (cease moving)
hold and stroke pets
laugh, cry, smile, sniffle
shudder, tremble, quiver, twitch, shake, wiggle, wriggle through
sigh, hold breath
squirm (in seat)
talk to self
tap on phone (or other communication devices)
tilt (tip) chair back
Beyond these kinds of motions, there are also simple body motions. Go for variety in these common movements as well. Yes, sometimes a character simply walks. But you don’t want to find you have that character walking across a room 100 times. Rather than use walk, try saunter. Rather than simply say turn, try pivot. Rather than look, try study.
Be exact in your word choice, yet make sure the words sound natural in context. You want the reader to accept your word choice without wondering if you chose a word from a thesaurus.
A few examples to get you started with these everyday motions—
Cry: wail, blubber, howl, weep, sob, simper, snivel
Look: study, examine, scrutinize, see, watch, peer, peek, peruse, check out, stare, gaze, focus on
Run: race, lunge, move, gallop, dash, sprint, bolt, jog
Touch: stroke, finger, caress, trace, rub, tap, pat
Turn: rotate, whirl around, twirl, pivot, change (reverse) direction, back up
Walk: step, run, race, cross (a room), ease (over or into or across), move, saunter, stalk, stomp, stamp, pace
Use variety in character movements so your characters come across as real people rather than caricatures and so readers can see those characters without feeling that you’re telling them information they already know.
Make your characters lifelike by setting them in motion, but don’t give them habits that annoy readers unless you’re doing so intentionally. (And then rethink those intentions.) A little goes a long, long way when you’re taking character habits and common motions.
Show characters reacting to setting, to other characters, to the emotions of the moment, and to their own personalities. Make them more than stick figures and talking heads who are incapable of movement.
Make characters real.