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Habits, Motions, and Common Actions of Fictional Characters

July 2, 2014 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified July 2, 2014

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.

__________________

Head/Neck/Shoulders

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

rub neck

shrug

touch (drop) chin to chest

 

Face

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

raise eyebrow(s)

rub eyes, massage eyes

scratch nose or chin or head or ear

smooth eyebrows, pluck at eyebrows

wink

wipe away tears

 

Mouth

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

chew ice

choke

frown, grimace

gargle, gurgle

grind teeth; tense, tighten, or grip jaw

gulp, swallow

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)

sing

sip tea or coffee (other drinks), gulp down alcoholic drinks

smile

smoke, fiddle with cigarette

spit

spit out food, spit out water

stick tongue out

stuff mouth

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

yawn

 

Hair

braid hair

chew hair

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)

 

Hands/Fingers

crack knuckles

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

snap fingers

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

wring hands

General

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

doodle

draw

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

sneeze

squirm (in seat)

talk to self

take notes

tap on phone (or other communication devices)

tilt (tip) chair back

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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

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 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.

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Tags: , ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

19 Responses to “Habits, Motions, and Common Actions of Fictional Characters”

  1. Sue says:

    Lovely advice, thank you. It’s difficult sometimes not to let the details boggle your mind.

    • Sue, the details can be never-ending, can’t they? But paying attention to them and using details that no other writers use make our stories unique. And unique stories and characters, unique approaches, appeal to the reader.

      Plus I’m guessing that most writers love figuring out which details are just perfect for a particular scene. It’s so satisfying when we make even the smallest details work.

  2. Kevin says:

    Hi Beth.

    I find all the newsletters containing your tips some of the best advice I’ve so far seen.

    Could you round them all up and perhaps produce a book?

    • Kevin, that’s great to hear. Thank you. I have been working on a book, but it’s about self-editing in general. I’ll definitely consider putting some of these articles together in book form. (But my clients have been keeping me busy, so I don’t know when that might happen.)

      For a temporary fix, you may want to print from the blog and keep the articles in a binder. I’m not sure how the articles look in the e-mail/newsletter version, but you can print straight from this page to produce a decent-looking print version.

      Again, thanks for the compliment.

  3. Andrea says:

    Thanks for these great tips! I also find The Emotion Thesaurus to be a great resource for finding movements and gestures.

    I really liked your point about not over-using them. How do you tell if you’ve done that? I suppose that’s where a critique partner would help!

    • Andrea, I’ve recently seen someone else recommend The Emotion Thesaurus. I don’t think I have that book, though it seems I’ve read parts of it. I may have to get it for myself.

      A critique partner is a godsend. You could also do a word search for common actions/motions to see how many times you use them. While you might expect multiple characters to smile, so you could have quite a few instances of smiling, you wouldn’t want multiple characters winking or cocking their heads or biting their nails. And you wouldn’t want one character doing such things too often. So while you may find characters smiling 15-25 times in a 90,000-word manuscript, a half dozen winks might be too many.

      The more unusual the movement, the fewer times it should be used since readers will notice it. But even common actions and motions can be used too often. Make searching for these actions a regular part of your own editing. Just as you’d cut or change too many uses of favorite verbs, cut or change too many uses of favorite motions.

  4. Great list. It’s easy to get caught up in making our characters do the same movements without realizing it until rereading. This is a nice tool to have. Thanks.

    • My pleasure, Mary. Sometimes the reminder is all we need.

      I was guilty of having too many characters whistling too often in my first novel manuscript. And I never noticed. But a beta reader did. Those outside eyes are so good for pointing out what should be obvious to us.

  5. Peter Pollak says:

    Another excellent, helpful column and just what I need when I get to the revision stage of my current work in progress. I’ m printing out your list to post on the wall.

  6. MJ Bush says:

    This is one of the more insidious problems I see. It’s SO hard for an author to see this one on their own. Heck, I’ve been known to worry at a scene of my own for weeks before I realize this is the problem.

    But when you’re specifically looking for it, it’s not that difficult to see and fix. Thank you for the reminder!

    • MJ, this is a tough one to see. But as you said, you can intentionally look for the under-and overuse of motions and common actions and strengthen your stories. The looking just needs to be part of the rewriting process rather than something a writer just wings, if she remembers it at all.

      Great points. Thanks for joining in.

  7. Thank you for the fantastic article!

    I’m guilty of overusing one or two particular character movements throughout a book, and sometimes not even noticing that I’ve relied solely on those couple of movements until I’m going back to revise and realize, “Wait a second, she JUST sighed not two paragraphs ago, and she’s doing it again … and again … and again … oh, dang it.”

    The other thing I’m guilty of is not giving each character (at least the main ones) their own unique movements. I tend to pick one or two movements, and then EVERYBODY in the novel does those actions, regardless of gender, upbringing, background, or other demographics.

    I also like the fact that movement is a really effective way to enforce deep POV (point of view) in a work of fiction; because deep POV says that you can’t name the emotion a character feels (e.g., “Enraged, he slammed his hands down on the table in front of her”), unique movements can convey the same thing (e.g., “He slammed his hands down on the table in front of her”).

    Thank you!

    • Eleanor, I’m glad you liked the article. And don’t feel as if you’re the only one—many writers are guilty of using the same movements for their characters. A reminder now and then is helpful for all of us.

      And you’re right that each character should have movements that fit. Those who grow up together might share some habits, but each is his or her own person, with quirks and habits peculiar to them.

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

  8. Joel says:

    Hi Beth, just wanted to let you know that your articles and advice are the best and most helpful on the internet. Thanks so much for doing what you’re doing :)

  9. Sara Donovan says:

    Your tips are so good and that list is so helpful, I feel like I’m cheating when I use it – which is a good thing!

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