Getting on their nerves – how to show anxiety in your characters
As my husband and I were driving from Croatia to Montenegro, we listened to two different audiobooks. Listening to novels is one of our favourite ways of filling in the time on the longer more boring parts of a journey, or even if we have big stretches without stopping. (Our current book is A Dark Lure by Loreth Anne White, a truly gripping thriller, which I highly recommend. It involves a serial killer coming back twelve years later to hunt down the one victim who got away…)
What I have noticed especially about listening to a novel, rather than reading it, is that repetition seems more obvious. That is not to say, however, that these errors do not appear in one’s own work, or that they can’t be fixed.
I have been doing the final edits on A Fish Out of Water, and have picked up that two of my characters show their nerves in the same manner – by biting their nails. Of course there are many ways to show nerves in your body language and nail/cuticle chomping is just one of these.
Here are some other tells for your character’s nervousness:
- Extra blinking – people who are nervous tend to blink more often.
- Face touching – if people are anxious, they can cup their chins, touch their jaws, ears, chins or cheeks.
- Hair twiddling – yes, both men and women can fiddle with their hair.
- Lack of eye contact – of course this depends on what culture you come from, but in many Western cultures, this is a sign of nerves.
- Smoking – although many smoke because they like to do this, this is also a way of having something to do with your hands in a social situation.
- Grinding or clenching your teeth – this can be done awake or while sleeping.
- Drinking – often at a party or in a bar, characters might drink a little more than normal to hide their nerves.
- Speaking fast – pace of speech is often a key identifier of nerves, particularly obvious if someone is speaking publicly (a best man speech, a presentation to a class, a first lecture…)
- Sucking or chewing on something – pens, pencils, hair etc.
- Foot tapping – many people move their feet when they are anxious.
- Fidgety fingers – as for feet, fingers often give the game away.
- Laughing or giggling – have you ever seen someone laughing at a funeral or at an inappropriate time? This can often be a sign of nervousness.
It is also true that any of these mannerisms might actually be indicative of something else that is happening with your character or in the story, so don’t be reliant on these signs alone. Your characters should be built of stronger stuff than the odd pencil chew or quick dialogue pace.
What other ways have you seen people show their nerves?
I’d love to hear your ideas.