On writing

Characters so real you become like them

Do you ever find yourself taking on the mannerisms and habits of characters in the novel you are currently reading?

Yesterday I found myself biting the side of my thumbnail. It’s not something I normally do. I admit, I occasionally bite off a bit of broken nail if there is no emery board or scissors handy, but that’s as far as it goes—and never on the side of my thumb, where the flesh meets the nail. Bite too hard there and you break the flesh, ending up with a very sore nail.

Most habits are sub-conscious. You don’t know it’s a habit until someone else points it out (and then you don’t believe them anyway). But I noticed this one and couldn’t work out when it had started.

Later that day I picked up the novel I was part-way through reading. A few paragraphs into the chapter the protagonist’s friend starts biting his nail, on the side, at the base of this thumb. And then I noticed I was biting the nail at the side of of my thumb too.

Mystery solved.

I have finished the book now, so hopefully this is one habit I won’t keep up. (Except, as I write this, guess what I was doing.)

I’m a bit of a chameleon that way. While I read a book I will often take on characteristics mentioned in the story.

Although I do remember one point-of-view character doing a lot of shoulder rolling—I was quite flexible after reading that book—most of the time the characteristics I pick up are those of secondary characters, rather than the main character’s. After all, the protagonist doesn’t think, “Oh, I’m biting my nails again. I’d better stop it.” Or not in the books I read, anyway. It’s more like, “I wish she would stop biting the side of her nail like that,” or “She’s biting the side of her nail again. What’s got her so worried?”

Another thing I notice is that I don’t take bad guy habits—unless I like the bad guy, of course. I usually take the habits of the protagonist’s friends, often the people I like best in the story.

I don’t know whether I retain the habits after I finish the book, although they definitely linger for a week or two, depending on how strong an impression the character made on me.

I’ll have to check and see whether I am still biting the side of my nail in another month.

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