Characterization with Mental Habits


12/29/20232 min read

One of my favorite characterization techniques to see is the mental habit. I love catching on to how characters habitually think about and respond to events.

Gray from Shami Stovall's Academy Arcanist

  • My brother never listened, no matter how many times I told him it was embarrassing to spout off random artsy language.

Gray’s social awareness and instinct toward conformity is the perfect setup for the arcanist of a mimic, or “copycat”—a mystical creature that can mimic the abilities of those around it (like a Ditto in Pokémon).

  • An omen? My father would’ve loved this painting.

Despite his desire to fit in and leave the life of a candlemaker’s son behind, Gray’s inability to stop thinking about home makes it clear that he does indeed have a solid identity—one he can’t escape from no matter how hard he tries.

Osric from Michael R. Miller's Defiant

  • Three gatehouses, Osric noted. Too many for this place. Wooden walls won’t stop juggernauts . . .

Building off of his military past and his hardened personality, having Osric consistently (and often unnecessarily) assessing a location’s strategic strengths and weaknesses is a no-brainer.

Gretchen from Megan Mosier's H.I.LL. Farm

  • “The Doppler Effect,” she murmured weakly.

While she may suck at studying for her veterinarian's school entry exam, Gretchen shows herself a true scientist by constantly noticing the scientific principles at work around her and getting curious about new creatures.

  • “I’ll get Neel’s stuff, and then groceries,” she told herself.

I also enjoy her tendency to make note of her actions and objectives. Reminds me Flint Lockwood!

Further Thought

Nothing's worse than a flat, dead cast of main characters. Give your characters personalities, and then show them off!

And, of course, there's always the chance for your character's thoughts to demonstrate the influence of events or other characters. I haven't noticed any specific examples of this anywhere recently, but perhaps your character begins to think like somebody they've been spending too much time around. Much like when my wife points out something I did or said as being very "this person we know," your character may or may not notice the trend—does it frustrate them? Make them smile in remembrance?

And if you're looking for someone who can catch when you accidentally mismatch Osric's and Gretchen's inner monologues, feel free to fill out the contact form on the home page!