We learn manners at an early age. I remember my mother lecturing me when I was a child to say please and thank you and always look an adult in the eye instead of studying my shoes. I’m forever watching my own kids and whispering, “Don’t forget to say thank you,” when someone gives them a gift. Manners are a necessary part of civilization. These small gestures of politeness are what make people cooperate and keep the wheels of society turning smoothly.
Manners play an important role in novels, too. Remembering one’s manners or intentionally omitting them can set the tone in a variety of scenes.
Let’s pretend you’re reading a mystery novel where a recalcitrant suspect refuses to talk to the police detective, even after repeated requests. The detective will need to take a tougher approach. You won’t hear him offer up a “pardon me” or a “please, sir.” Instead, he’ll use
harsh language and even threats to get the suspect’s attention. It’s this lack of manners that lets the suspect, and the reader, know that the detective isn’t fooling around. He wants answers, and he plans to get them.
On the flip side, that same detective will tip his hat and murmur platitudes to the little old lady who sits by her window each day and watches the activity on her street. He’ll drink her lukewarm, bitter tea and nibble her stale cookies with nary a complaint just so he can uncover what she might have witnessed the day her neighbor was murdered. It won’t help to brow
beat the woman until she dissolves into tears. She’s not going to share any information with him that way. No, he needs to remember his manners and be as polite as can be if he expects her to say anything worthwhile.
In my own books, my main character definitely uses her manners. As an amateur sleuth, she has no authority to force anyone to answer her questions. If she’s too aggressive and nosy, the other person can simply stop talking to her. Rather, she tries to remain polite in an effort to put the person at ease so they’ll willingly open up to her.
In fiction, as in real life, it’s important to use manners at the right time. Otherwise, you may never get the answers you need.