Ninie Hammon’s Blog for Writers

One Critical Tip From Professional Gamblers Will Make Your Characters Unforgettable

Posted: November 14, 2013, 5:52PM
Original drawing by Murphy Elliott. Prints available at

You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run.

You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table. There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.

If these words don’t instantly conjure the image of a crooning Kenny Rogers, his eyes, nose and mouth peeking out a small opening in his all-around surround hair, you might want to check out the nearest community college for a remedial life course.

You know, novelists could learn a lot from professional gamblers. Consider the intensity a pro brings to the observation of his opponents. Does the other player always pick up the cards with the same hand? Does he shove chips to the pile carefully or throw them into the pot. Does his opponent make direct eye contact, stare into space, drum his fingers?

A professional gambler is always searching for his opponent’s “tell.”

He’s watching for a too-broad smile that means his opponent’s bluffing, sudden friendliness that indicates the guy across the table is hoping nobody calls his bluff, or a quiet reserve that’s a sure sign of a great hand. In the world of royal flushes and king-high straights, a tell refers to an unconscious mannerism that gives away a player’s assessment of his cards.

In the world of plots, backstories, and characterization, a tell refers to absolutely nothing. At least not as far as I know. But in NinieLand, a tell is a characteristic that instantly identifies a character, almost like a radioactive chip in the dark. And its repeated use resonates with Loyal Reader, draws an ever more detailed, layered picture of the character in his mind and strengthens the bond between them.

I imagine the common term for what I’m talking about is  “quirk.” Go online and you can find lists of them. Here’s one.

Common quirks include:

*Drumming fingers

*Crossing and uncrossing legs

*Unpleasant, high voice, distinctive laugh

* Making strange faces

*Eyebrow lifting

*Knuckle-popping,  eye rolling, limping

*Burping, farting, yawning, eating with mouth open


Some lists give even more detailed descriptions of quirks. You could, perhaps, create a character who:

*Carries a large coin he is constantly rolling over his knuckles

*Regularly looks up at the sky to check the position of the sun/moon and then comments on it

* Bites fingernails, hers and other people's

*Has a weakness for rescuing stray dogs, cats and injured forest creatures

*Strongly dislikes the sound of chewing and hums while eating

*Only drinks from plastic or paper cups and cannot stand the feel of glass in her hand

*Wears only new socks,  doesn't eat anything green or red, uses toenail clippers to trim the rose bushes and lists "Who Stole The Kishka?" as favorite song.

*Responds to every crisis  by shrugging his shoulders and saying, "Whatcha gonna do?  S**T happens."

No, I did not make those up. Google “quirk” and see for yourself.

My quarrel with quirks (I could get serious Scrabble points with that phrase!) is that I don’t believe you can give a character a tell like pinning a tail on a donkey. You can’t decide what the tell is and then shape the character around it. A tell must blossom organically from who your character is, what he wants, what he’s done and where he’s going. You must use the character to define the tell, not the other way around.

Once it’s established, you reinforce a tell by its continued use throughout the story. Just remember, a tell is like chili peppers, tax audits and colonoscopies—a little goes a long way.

A tell can be anything you choose. It can be a quality that’s almost indefinable but discernible nonetheless, something observable.

Something as simple as stillness.

She sat as still as a windsock on a foggy morning, simply looked at him, her face benignly expressionless. The moment stretched out, elongated, didn’t seem to be governed by the cranking of the earth on its axis.

Then she spoke. “Yes,” she said. Just the one word, an affirmation almost like an “ahhhh,” a sigh so soft it didn’t disturb the air in the room.

Then reinforce the tell in later scenes.

She walked slowly back to the table and sat down and the absolute quiet and centeredness gathered around her, disturbed bees settling back on the hive.


“Well, I finally did understand how you could love that much,” she said.

Princess was wrapped in expectant stillness again, almost … humming—maybe producing a sound that’d cause a dog to whine and scratch at its ears.

He managed to say, “Tell me about her.”

The warm honey of her voice bubbled up out of the center of her perfect quiet.

“She was so beautiful she broke your heart.”

Five Days in May

A tell can be a characteristic behavior or speech pattern. Be creative, though, don’t settle for something as lame as thumb-twiddling, nail-biting or stuttering.

“I’m James Bowman Sparrow, sir, named after my granddaddy, but ever-body calls me Jamey. Well, most ever-body. ’Cept JoJo and sometimes she calls me mow-ron, but she don’t mean nothin’ by it, and sometimes Granny calls me Jamey Boy.” He paused to get a breath. “But you can call me Jamey. The end.”

The monologue was delivered in a cheery voice, but the young man never looked at Will, kept his head down, and his gaze roamed the room like a searchlight on a guard tower, up and down the baseboards of every wall, never move than six inches off the floor.

* * *

Jamey looked confused, wagged his head back and forth and looked at no one. Then his face cleared. “I can use the watch JoJo give me for Christmas, a Mickey Mouse watch and when both the little hand and the big ’un point straight up it plays “M-I-C, K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-E” and that means it’s time for lunch. The end.”

He looked at the bottom of the kitchen chairs as he spoke.

Black Sunshine

A tell can be a physical trait.

Granny sat piano-teacher erect with those big, man’s hands folded in her lap as prim as Cinderella waiting for Prince Charming to ask her to dance

. * * *

“Didn’t we just agree we was gonna work up to that? We got plenty of time.” She reached out and touched his cheek, her big hands soft as a butterfly kiss.

* * *

She continued to maneuver the hooks in delicate movements that should have looked clumsy but didn’t, working so fast it was almost impossible to follow the hooks’ progress.

“I figure if they’s to put needles and yarn in yore coffin during visitation,” Lloyd said, fascinated by the movements of her big, square fingers, “you’d likely make up a right nice sweater ’fore they started shovelin’ in the dirt.”

Black Sunshine

In short, the character-driven, creative and consistent use of a tell is a great way to create characters your reader will remember forever. The key words in that sentence, folks, all start with C.

We'd all love to hear about "tells" you used in your fiction. Do share in the comments below so we can learn from each other.

Write on!



Ellis Shuman November 15, 2013, 11:14AM |

Great article! As someone who works in the online gambling industry and also is a creative writer, this is a great tip for developing characters!   Reply

Replies (1)

Cheryl December 31, 2013, 8:15PM

Locke Lamora (of The Lies of Locke Lamora) always eats the whole apple - core and all - and it drives his friends nuts. Every time I slice an apple and see the core I think of that great fantasy novel! Great post!   Reply

Replies (1)

Mike Shields (@MatchesMalone) January 1, 2014, 7:16AM |

Tells are overrated. In poker, most don't have the typical tells, and furthermore, the ones you see in the movies (Rounders, I'm lookin' @you!) don't truly exist for more than one or two people. The ones that are aware of the tells attempt to hide them, or create false mannerisms, or counter-tells. Yes, I've overthought this way too much, however, as my first comment for 2014, your analysis, while incorrect, works for writing characters. PS, Kenny Rogers got it wrong. But that's another post for another time. PPS, Happy New Year, everyone!!!   Reply

Replies (1)

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"Oh, and about the 9 and the e beside my name. Say it fast, emphasis on the 9. That’s how you pronounce my first name -9e. (Think “rhymes with tiny and shiny, NOT with skinny and penny.”)

Suspense Author

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