When you hang a roll of toilet paper do you have the end come over the roll or under? When you walk into the door do you have a big ceramic bowl that the whole family throws their keys in. If you’re drinking a beer do you pick at the label to see if you can remove it in one piece?
We all of us have countless rituals and habits that we usually don’t even think about. We might not be aware of them but they might define us to others. If my wife is still in bed in the morning and I’m already up she can hear what she calls ‘Eric sounds’: the sound of me letting the dog out and making coffee. They can be defining even if they make no sense. My grandfather (like Homer Simpson) always answered the phone by saying ‘yello!’. Only on the phone, face to face he would say ‘hello’ like a normal person.
These ticks and rituals can be ‘little stuff’, ticks and habits, to flesh out a character or it can be bigger more important rituals that speak to what the character really is. Or both. In No Country for Old MenChiggurh likes to flip a coin if he’s not sure he’s going murder someone. Not the first time that device has been used but later we find out that it really means something to him. Also, despite being a stone killer, he appears to be a little squeamish about blood, or at least getting it on his clothes.
It’s an actor’s trick to find something to make their characters real to them but it will work for you. You are after all the ‘actor’ for all of your characters. If it feels contrived at first just keep at it. Mechanical rituals are easy enough to slip in. An ex-soldier might still practice field stripping and cleaning his rifle. A man might obsessively maintain his car. A woman might have a ‘pre-flight’ checklist she goes through before she drives to work.
These are especially good to make minor characters more real.
The truck driver fished out a cigarette and lit it.
The truck driver fished out a cigarette. He pulled out his lighter, an old Zippo held between two fingers, and opened it one-handed with a motion like snapping his fingers.
The first one is fine it tells us the truck driver did indeed light his cigarette. The second one is wordier sure but it tells us that, despite smoking being politically incorrect these days, he still does the old Zippo lighter trick.
You tell me which is better.