Lake Atitlan, Panajachel, Guatemala

“Reading and writing are acts of empathy and faith. Guard that trust carefully — in this rapidly changing business, it’s the only sure thing.” ~Erin Keane
"Never give up. And most importantly, be true to yourself. Write from your heart, in your own voice, and about what you believe in." ~ Louise Brown

"Write something to suit yourself and many people will like it; write something to suit everybody and scarcely anyone will care for it."
~Jesse Stuart

"A writer's job is to take one thing and make it stand for twenty." ~ Virginia Woolf

Monday, September 12, 2011

No-no's in Character Actions

I wrote this tweet a couple days ago:

"No-no's in character actions: eye-rolling, grinning, smiling, sighing, head-jerking, arms crossed in front of chest. All cliches."

Think about about all the times you've seen these actions in manuscripts, even in published books-- they seem to be everywhere!

Not meaning you can never use them, of course, but be very very careful and sparing in how many times you have a character roll her eyes, cross her arms in front of her chest, smile, grin and sigh. A few I didn't include: clenching teeth, gritting teeth, glaring, laughing-- not because there's anything wrong with these actions themselves but it's because they have become too overused.

A question that came back to me: "So characters can't act like real people?"

Actually, real people have countless mannerisms. Writers must go beyond the obvious and the cliched in their descriptive tags. I mean, think about all the little expressions and gestures that real people use to show their thoughts and emotions. Why limit ourselves to those common ones that everyone else is using? As writers, we need to have refined powers of observation, not falling back on what's ordinary and easy. If you want to show a character's disgust or boredom, give me something besides eye-rolling. Please!

Crossing arms in front of chest used to be good the first few times, but lately I see it everywhere. It's unfortunately become a cliche. What other overused character mannerisms have you been seeing lately?


  1. Totally agree, Karen. It isn't that characters can't act like real people, they just have to act like real people under a microscope. Think about anyone you know well. What are the three or four most distinguishing mannerisms or characteristics of that person? Things that make them unique? Most likely, that list isn't going to include arm crossing, sighing, etc.

    Those 'special' things are what need to come out in our written characters.


  2. I looked over my manuscript and realized that some of my characters do cross their arms a lot. I also noticed that there is a lot of smiling; I have to figure out a different way for them to express themselves when they're happy.

  3. You're right. It's not that your characters can never use these mannerisms, but every writer should be hyper-aware of how often they slip through. And, yannoh, maybe try to come up with a fresh take on them, at least.

  4. E.J, Right now I am biting my thumbnail. I do it constantly. I also sigh a lot but which of these would I rather see in a book? Not sighing, because it's boring :)

    Neurotic, If I can cause even one writer to take out the excessive arm-crossing and smiling by this post, then I am happy!

    Linda, Yes, it's not like they can NEVER be used but like adverbs, they need to be used sparingly and only when it's the exact right place and time.

  5. The grinning thing is tough. I had to trim a few of those out of my last manuscript. Some just became smirks!

  6. * raises eyebrow * what do you mean? ;-)

  7. Oh dear Lord. I've used all of these!

  8. Oh my goodness. Everyone is grinning, smiling, laughing, and sighing in my manuscript. I am definitely going to remember this when I get to my final edit (right now there are just so many big plot/character problems to worry about!)

  9. congratulations! You're officially an editor.

    Normal people don't notice things like that, and I'm convinced they enjoy reading way more than me.

    (she said, rolling her eyes and crossing her arms. Add a foot stomp. ;o)

  10. LTM, Speaking of foot stomp, the character in a chick lit I'm editing does that, and it totally works! Someone then asks her, "Did I see you just stomp your foot?" LOL. I love it!

    Melissa, They're the kinds of things that can be worked on later, don't worry about it now!

    Talli, well, me too for that matter LOL. In Uncut Diamonds, Marcie McGill rolls her eyes at least once. (do as I say not as I do hehe) And if Willow Watts did any of these, I never noticed anything cliched at all, so you must have incorporated it all in seamlessly. I just remember laughing hysterically as she is trying to maneuver herself around in that Marilyn get up!

  11. Yeah, I'm guilty of all of these. I cringe when going over my ms for editing, I really do.

  12. So true, Karen. I avoid cliches throughout my book, not only on mannerisms. I see my stories from a cinematic perspective. I always try to explain what characters are doing, based on what I see and what they would be feeling. But not in a long winded way either.

  13. It's so true - and I use these all the a first draft. Later I come back and come up with the more creative way to express it. Searching for those terms is an automatic way to de-cliche my MS.

    Great post! :)

  14. I cringe every time I write "smile." Sometimes, though, a character just has to do it.

  15. Hi,

    Oh, oh, if I see nibbling lip again I'll scream.

    Having said that I love chuckle! ;)


  16. Gotta admit; I probably have an inordinate amount of smiling, grinning, and chuckling in my book. (Kinda like ME!)

  17. Running her had through her hair.

    I see that phrase a lot! Take care

  18. LOL. My characters tend to 'glare' a lot if I don't watch out. I think it's because I'm usually glaring at the computer.

  19. But are they cliches or just common actions that might sound awkward to express in any other way? Would it sound contrived to have too many synonyms or descriptive phrases for something that could be passed by simply in a word or commonly understood phrase? Just wondering.

    Tossing It Out

  20. i don't think i've ever used the arm crossing. BUT i definitely use the others. Especially when i'm drafting

  21. ...its when the act is constantly repeated that causes my hair to stand on end. Grrr!


  22. Ooh, good point. I love what you say about going beyond the obvious. But even those have to be used lightly.

    I think of mannerisms like dialogue. In order to be understood, characters can't talk like, um, you know, real people.

  23. Someone already wrote "raised eyebrows"...
    Great article, something I agree with just never really thought about. *sighing* ;)

  24. Great observation. I'm sure that I'll notice this a lot more now, and act acordingly in my own work.

  25. "Lip chewing" is one of my personal hates, there are so many better ways to say it, if one has to. I envision shredded lips- can't stop myself - bloodied and vanished. I counted in one book 48 chews. The same character.
    Also thumb nibbling a close second.

  26. LOL yes. I've noticed if I don't make a huge effort I use the same 20 words over and over again. I somehow forget that other words in the English language actually exist.

    My crutch words are "stared" "looked" "shot him a look," etc. My characters seem to do lots of looking apparently.

    Great post!

  27. Oh man, I know my manuscript is currently riddled with these! I'm going to have to bookmark this as one of the posts to come back and review when it comes time for editing. *sigh* Oh man...hehe

  28. Ooooh. I have a lot of changes to make.

  29. I love searching for a word like "smile" and see how many Word counts. It's a personal challenge.

  30. lol! Sometimes my characters smile a lot. Stop smiling! So funny!

  31. My problem is that there are SO many things considered "cliche" now, but there's a reason certain things are cliche! It's because, as you said, they really happen. For me, I don't consider them an all-around no-no as much as a "use sparingly" and only if they work perfectly. I have seen a lot of sighing myself, as well as finger drumming.

  32. Hi Karen. Good point here!

    "Gritting teeth" is my pet peeve. Especially when everyone is saying everything through "gritted teeth." Just imagine it. You'd look like a maniac if you said everything through gritted teeth, and no one would understand you. :)

    As for the others, it's all a matter of measure. Lumped together in a row they look awkward and stilt everything. Used single and occasionally they're okay.

  33. You know what drives me crazy? The word 'padded' as a descriptor of walking. I 'padded across the kitchen.' I see this one everywhere.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse