A character is shy, anxious, anti-social, nervous, etc. So, when speaking, she often pauses or makes noises like “uhm”, err”, “uhh”, etc. I’m asking a couple questions:

  1. What would be the best way to write the character, both in and out of dialogue? And,

  2. How many “uhm”s and pauses is too many?

The character is viewed from a perspective other than her own.


3 Answers 3


Be very careful about showcasing anxiety in dialog. People love using an excessive amount of "ums" and "ahs" for this along with outright stuttering, but in my opinion this very often comes across far more like a speech disorder than nervousness. Conflating stuttering with excessive nerves and anxiety is both inaccurate and offensive, and as someone who stutters I wish writers would leave my disability alone if they can't write it with the respect it deserves.

Which isn't to say that there's no place for "um" and "ah", but try to make sure there's a reason for the pause. Is the character suddenly thinking the better of what they're saying? Do they trail off halfway through or start contradicting what they said earlier? That's a good reason for someone to pause. Are they trying to build up to something they think the other person might take offense at? Maybe - but in that case I'd also expect a lot of circumlocution, talking around the issue, softening, preemptive "this is just my opinion"/"maybe I have this wrong"/etc., and the "ums" and pauses coming as they change tracks. If you just litter their speech randomly with filler words and pauses, that... again, that's how someone with a speech disorder talks. Here be dragons.

I also think this is a very... low-level, for lack of a better word, place to start trying to depict anxiety. I'd first start off with how it influences the character's motivations and actions. For instance, an anxious or nervous character might be very indecisive or risk-averse. They might be constantly jumping to the most negative possible consequence of any action they could take, or have a heightened sense of potential danger, or a disproportionate fear of negative outcomes where e.g. failing at something is considered world-ending, or similar. If they're shy, social situations could be classed as a "dangerous situation", and any sort of potential embarrassment considered a disastrous outcome to be avoided at all costs. At the same time, they might be very unsure of and mistrustful of their own instincts and reactions, i.e. easy to influence and talk into things (and sometimes end up talking themselves into things) because they know their fears are often irrational and are therefore primed not to take them into account.

Once you have that in mind, you can figure out how your character is going to act in a given situation, what sort of decisions they will make, how they will react to things, what their emotional responses will be like. At that point the lower-level depictions like dialog and body language should hopefully come more naturally. As a bonus, they'll be more appropriate to context! If you focus too much on the lower-level depictions, you'll be primed to write your shy/nervous/anxious character the exact same way regardless of whether they're at a party with lots of people they barely know and really want to impress or whether they're at a one-on-one lunch with their best friend since childhood, which doesn't come off realistic at all.


To convey shyness and anxiousness, I would recommend focusing on the non-verbal cues. For example, your character could try to appear smaller by hunching their shoulders or squeezing their limbs together when new character sits next to them. You could also include other behaviors like playing with their hair or bouncing their leg that are often associated with being nervous. If you want to show their nervousness in their speech, instead of adding filler words you can describe their speech with verbs like "stuttered", "whispered", "muttered" etc. to show hesitancy or lack of confidence. This always helps me to ensure I am not saying "said" every time a character speaks.

Depending on where the person is occasionally feels anxious or has anxiety, you may also want to read articles on anxiety. For example, this article lists the symptoms, risk factors, and complications. Lastly, as Alexander suggested, finding characters in media that are similar to your character can provide inspiration on how to develop character.


I'd recommend to stay away from many “uhm”, “err” and “uhh”.

There are many ways to show how a character is shy and anti-social. Stressing her speech issues risks making it her defining trait, like King George VI's in "King's Speech", and I'm not sure this is what you want to do.

What I recommend is to go through movies and books that you like and try to find characters which are similar to yours. See how those characters are developed - usually it's look, actions, pattern of behavior, while speech is just of the tools that an author can use.

  • 2
    Re: stressing speech issues - more to the point, a speech disorder like King George VI had is not the same thing as shyness or anxiety and conflating the two is in fact an offensive stereotype. I stutter myself and I would be delighted if writers stopped coopting my disability (causes unclear but likely due to an inborn neurological defect, psychological causes ruled out) as the symptom of a character flaw. So yeah, go easy on the changes to dialog, OP.
    – Tau
    Commented Jul 29, 2021 at 8:29
  • 1
    @Tau Good point, but shyness and anxiety are not character flaws. Commented Aug 28, 2021 at 21:17

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