Nervous habits

Do you chew your nails, jiggle your foot, suck your thumb or pick your nose? By adding what may seem to be mundane little habits like these to your characters you will actually make them seem more realistic and animated.  It may seem like a minor thing to add, but it can have a profound effect on your readers as it will help them to recognise and remember your character.

  • Touching jewellery – A children’s fantasy I read years ago had an elderly teacher continually twirling the engagement ring she received from a man who died in the war.  Later in the book a little girl goes back in time and sees the same teacher in her youth twirling the same ring.  The gesture links the older character and the younger very neatly without having to say “Oh, there’s Miss Smith”.  Instead the time travelling girl recognises her teacher by her nervous habit.  I do not remember the name of the book or the rest of the story, only this tiny little habit.
  • Gesturing to God – This is something I see quite regularly in Ireland where people will cross themselves as they pass cemeteries by habit or roll their eyes to the heavens for guidance when they’re at a loss.  Touching a rosary or worry beads over and over may also be considered a plea to God.
  • Cracking knuckles – This can be seen as a threat or an idle bad habit, but it is difficult to ignore.  There are people I’ve met over the years who’ve cracked their knuckles because they’re bored or to show off, but some seem to do it completely unconsciously.
  • Fidgeting – Continually moving your fingers, adjusting your clothes, clearing your throat and jiggling your feet can become habit very easily.
  • Scratching, touching or chewing on parts of the bodyThe Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind has the main bad guy regularly licking a finger and then straightening his eyebrows with it.  This gesture wasn’t particularly anxious, it was more of a sleazy confident habit.  But the same gesture could be used in a nervous way, just as I’m sure you’ve seen people scratching the side of their face when anxious or chew their fingers or fingernails.
  • Twitching – Sometimes when people are upset or tired they may develop a nervous twitch in their eye or some other part of their face or body.  It can make you irritable and add to your worries that others will notice it.
  • Repetition – When you’re nervous you’re more likely to repeat yourself.  Think back on high pressure meetings or presentations you’ve made when you’ve said “Umm” or “You know” or “Actually” or some other expression/word more often than you should.
  • Stuttering – Those people who have a speech impediment will stutter more when anxious.  But even those people who don’t normally stutter may do so when particularly nervous or fearful.
  • Sweating – Having sweat bead on your forehead, under your arms, down your back or in other bodily creases is quite natural when you’re nervous.  But it can often make people feel even more worried because they become concerned that others can see or smell their fear.
  • Sniffing – Some people sniff when there’s nothing to come out simply because they’re worried and they don’t even realise they’re doing it.
  • Self-harm – As you’re writing fantasy you can be fairly adventurous with this type of nervous habit, and be as subtle or cruel as you need to be for the character you’re trying to portray.  But some mild examples are people who scratch themselves until they bleed, give themselves tiny cuts with a knife, pull out their hair or thump their head.

Little nervous habits like these speak volumes about the personality of your characters, without having to say outright “Fred was anxious”.   Instead you can say something like, “Fred looked at his watch again and then at the door.  He chewed on his thumbnail as his foot beat a steady rhythm on the tiles.  With a shudder he looked down at his thumb and watched as blood began to ooze from the side of his nail.  With a grunt of disgust he shoved the offending digit in his mouth and wondered when, if, she would ever arrive.”

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