This essay is adapted from Rick Meyer’s notes for a talk at the 2005 Nieman Narrative Editors’ Seminar. Rick’s presentation was paired with Laurie Hertzel’s talk on scenes.
We probably ought to declare something right away, so no one can accuse us of cheating. In nonfiction, when we talk about building characters, we’re not talking about creating them. That happens in fiction. In our world, God creates the characters. That’s his or her job. It’s our job to write about those characters.
But it is true, nonetheless, that writers build characters. First, when they report them, they take them apart and put pieces of them into their notebooks: Pale, amber eyes. Red hair. Freckles across the bridge of her nose. Talks softly and slowly. Perfume like lilacs. Then when they write these characters, they put the pieces back together, back into whole beings. If they have done it well, these people come alive. They inhabit our imaginations just as vividly as fictional characters do.
Maybe more so, because when we read about them we know they’re real.
What happens to the main characters in the stories we edit is called the plot or the story line or the arc of the narrative. We ought to develop plots, or story lines, through scenes as much as possible. I’ll try here to suggest some ways to develop the characters in those scenes into full, three-dimensional figures. In other words, I’ll try to suggest how to make the characters come alive, how to make them come up off the written page.
None of these suggestions is original with me. I’ve picked up these notions along the way from editors, reporters and writers, teachers and folks who write about writing. They include Jon Franklin, John Gardner, Jim Frey, Tom Wolfe, Mark Kramer, Gay Talese, Sol Stein, Walt Harrington, John McPhee, Jacqui Banaszynski, Elmore Leonard, Barry Siegel, Jack Hart, Kit Rachlis and Norman Mailer. If there’s anything unique here, it’s only because Willie Nelson might be right when he says, “If you steal from enough people, somehow you end up doing your own thing.”
My suggestions number a baker’s dozen plus one. To illustrate them, I’ll use a piece you might be familiar with. It’s an old story by now, published in 2002. But it has some pretty good examples of what I’m going to talk about. It’s Sonia Nazario’s piece about a 17-year-old kid named Enrique, whose mother leaves him behind in Central America and comes to the United States to find work. He is so torn and lonely for her that he sets out on his own, by foot, riding on the tops of freight trains, hitchhiking on trucks, all the way across Honduras and Guatemala, up the length of Mexico, then by coyote across the Rio Grande and illegally into Texas, then finally to North Carolina to hunt for her. Forty-eight thousand kids do this every year. Some are only 7 years old. It’s a new and extremely dangerous migration. Sonia’s story won a Pulitzer.
Many of the things I’m going to talk about Sonia did on her own. A few I suggested. Some are suggestions I wish I had offered but didn’t have the good sense to at the time. A number might make you yawn, because you know some of these things as well as or better than I do. But maybe there’s a notion or two here that could be helpful. It sort of goes without saying that Sonia and I talked about things such as these all along the way — as she reported, while she drew up her story architecture and during her writing. If you wait to consider them until the line editing gets under way, you’re way too late.
Here are the suggestions:
1. Build characters by showing their actions.
Sometimes you’ll be tempted to develop characters by saying who they are. Show them instead.
Shaq was tall. That’s telling it. Shaq ducked to get through the door. That’s showing it.
My father was easygoing about religion. That’s telling.
Every spring, my father let me skip catechism class so I could play baseball. That’s showing.
From “Enrique’s Journey,” here’s an example that tells first and then shows:
Uncle Marco and his girlfriend treat him well. … Uncle Marco gives Enrique a daily allowance, buys him clothes and sends him to a private school.
I could make a pretty good case that you shouldn’t do both. It’s redundant. In retrospect, I’d suggest to Sonia that we take out the first of those two sentences.
2. Get character-building information by asking for examples, anecdotes and vignettes.
Let’s say I tell you: “My father was easygoing about religion.” Right away, you should follow up by saying, “Please give me an example.” Or, “How did it show?” Or, “How could you tell?” Or, “Can you give me an anecdote or a vignette that shows what you mean?” Or, “Tell me a story about that.”
I’m likely to think for a minute and say, Well, every spring when the mission sisters came around to our little town to teach catechism, my father let my brother and me duck out to play baseball.
One day, one of the nuns came to the house and asked him why we weren’t in catechism class.
“Well, Sister,” he said, “my boys know a lot about their religion, even know how to serve Mass. But they don’t know how to execute a double play at second off a hot grounder to short, and they need to know that, too.”
Now you have an example of an action my father took that showed what he was like. My father is starting to come alive.
So is Enrique’s Uncle Marco, who was a moneychanger:
Enrique runs errands for his uncle, washes his five cars, follows him everywhere.
His uncle pays as much attention to him as he does his own son. … “Negrito,” he calls him fondly, because of his dark skin. … His uncle trusts him, even to make bank deposits. [One day], he tells Enrique, “I want you to work with me forever …”
Because of [a] security guard’s murder, Marco swears that he will never change money again. A few months later, though, he gets a call. For a large commission, would he exchange $50,000 in lempiras on the border with El Salvador? Uncle Marco promises that this will be the last time.
Enrique wants to go with him.
But his uncle says he is too young. He takes one of his own brothers instead.
Robbers riddle their car with bullets …
3. Build characters by describing them.
In detail. When you seek the attributes that describe your subjects, think of the senses: What do your subjects look like, sound like, smell like, feel like — and, if you kiss them, what do they taste like? Mint? Garlic?
What do they smell like? He hadn’t showered in days, and his T-shirt smelled like sour milk.
What do they feel like? (What is this? Some kind of California touchy-feely stuff? Well, not exactly.) He had leathery hands, and his shake was slow and firm. (That guy could be from Maine.)
A lot of what we know comes to us through our senses. If you don’t believe me, watch Sesame Street. Kids learn the number four by seeing four apples, hearing four bells, feeling four fuzzy peaches. Try to record all the senses. What do you (or your subjects) see? Hear? Smell? Taste?
Get specific details. Not just black shoes. Black shoes with laces and little heels. A subject didn’t just shout. His voice split the morning like an ax. It was morning, and his voice was loud.
Details. Individually, details are very important. But taken all together, they are more important still. They help you convey your characters not just at the level where they can be seen and heard and smelled and tasted, but taken all together, they convey them at the level where they come to life.
Not all details are worth reporting or writing. Look for distinguishing details, the ones that distinguish me, for instance, from everyone else. Look for particularity – details that are particular to me. Let’s say you’re writing about my eyeglasses. What distinguishes my glasses from everyone else’s?
Use not just distinguishing details, or particular details, but telling details. What are the particular details of my eyeglasses that tell something about me? (They’re dirty. Then you can put that together with something my wife would say to you: He’s always too busy to clean them. That detail and the reason for it will tell readers something about me. It will characterize me.)
- Describe physical attributes.
- Describe clothing and how he or she wears it.
- Describe proclivities, eccentricities. An example from Enrique’s journey: Quietly, Enrique, the slight kid with a boyish grin, fond of kites, spaghetti, soccer and break dancing, who likes to play in the mud and watch Mickey Mouse cartoons with his 4-year-old cousin, packs up his belongings: corduroy pants, a T-shirt, a cap, glove, a toothbrush and toothpaste …
- Describe mannerisms: Although he is in his teens, Enrique is small, just shy of 5 feet, even when he straightens up from a slight stoop.
- Describe psychological attributes. Temperament, for instance. And phobias, fears, fantasies: Maria Isabel, Enrique’s girlfriend, finds him sitting on a rock at a street corner, weeping … She tries to comfort him. He is high on glue. He tells her he sees a wall of fire that is killing his mother.
Here’s a checklist for character development that will help you get all the details.
4. Show what your subjects do with those attributes.
Which is better? To write that the character had pale, amber eyes, or to write that she rolled her pale, amber eyes and looked at the ceiling?
Which is better? To write that he had big feet, or to write that he walked hard on his big heels, as if he’d spent a lot of time in boots. This gets back to showing action to build characters, instead of simply saying what they look like.
In “Enrique’s Journey,” Maria Luisa is a villager along the tracks who feeds kids riding the trains. Her attributes are her hands. Here is what she does with them:
A stooped woman, Maria Luisa Mora Martin, more than 100 years old, who was reduced to eating the bark of her plantain tree during the Mexican Revolution, forces her knotted hands to fill bags with tortillas, beans and salsa, so her daughter, Soledad Vasquez, 70, can run down a rocky slope and heave them onto a train.
“If I have one tortilla, I give half away …”
5. Focus on what makes your characters extraordinary.
It’s not the ordinary details that bring a character to life. It’s the exceptional, remarkable ones that do it.
A lot of people talk slowly, but when I talk you can watch grass grow.
A lot of people sound nasal when they talk, but when I talk, I sound like gravel rolling down a tin roof.
A lot of people say “hell.” When I say “hell,” it has two syllables and sounds like I’m talking about pellets of frozen rain.
On the page, and in your mind, I’m no longer so ordinary, am I? (You know, if I kept this up, I could make myself come alive.)
From “Enrique’s Journey,” here is a not-so-ordinary smuggler:
He leaves it up to El Tirindaro, a subspecies of smuggler known as a patero because he pushes people across the river on inner tubes by paddling soundlessly with his feet, like a pato, or duck …
6. Build character with dialogue.
Dialogue happens in scenes, and it has to do with plot. Dialogue should advance the plot. But it also has to do with characterization. Fill your notebooks with what your subjects say, with their speech patterns and what they sound like when they talk.
You should use what your subjects say – and how they say it – to show penchants for jargon, poor grammar and mispronunciation. Or meticulous pronunciation, even eloquent diction. Or pretension, sarcasm, humor, anger, fright, sadness, joy, impatience, frustration.
Sometimes an appropriate silence, or even an inappropriate silence, can say a lot about a subject and the subject’s character.
Are characters soft-spoken? Do they drawl? Twang? Are they clear, or do they mumble?
A caution: What you’re likely to get in your notebooks, and even more so on your tapes, is speech full of unnecessary words.
Try not to include those words in your stories. Pare dialogue down. Look for opportunities to avoid head-on talk, what some folks call dialogue that’s on-the-nose:
“How are you?”
“I’m fine. How are you?”
“I’m fine, too.”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going down to Legal Seafood for dinner.”
“I haven’t had dinner yet.”
“Do you want to come?”
That’s what a tape transcript looks like. It’s direct, on-the-nose. And it’s guaranteed to put readers to sleep, or worse: make them turn on the TV.
Instead, try to write dialogue that is less on-the-nose, more oblique. Something like this:
“I’m going down to Legal Seafood for dinner. Want to come?”
The next word should NOT be, “Yes.”
Next should be: Laurie had halibut and iced tea. Rick had abalone steak and Jack Daniels. These are telling details.
From “Enrique’s Journey”:
They speak bitter words that both, along with Enrique’s Grandmother Agueda, will recall months later. “Where are you coming from, you old bum?” Ana Lucia asks as Enrique walks in the door. “Coming home for food, huh?”
“Be quiet!” he says. “I’m not asking anything of you.”
“You are a lazy bum! A drug addict! No one wants you here.” All the neighbors can hear. “This isn’t your house. Go to your mother.”
7. Show their characters’ cultures, social classes and values
…which are often intertwined.
Tom Wolfe was big on this, especially about showing the social-class characteristics of his subjects. Remember the Black Panthers at Leonard Bernstein’s party? Now those guys were fully dimensional, unforgettable characters who came up off the page like freight trains breaking wind in a crystalsilverlinen tunnel ooooooooeee, lookathewideeyedhonkies, chuga chuga chugga, choo choo. (Whatever you do, don’t try to write like Tom Wolfe; no one can do it like the master.)
Or Hunter Thompson’s memorable clash of cultures and values:
“The Menace is loose again, the Hell’s Angels, the hundred-carat headline, running fast and loud on the early morning freeway, low in the saddle, nobody smiles, jamming crazy through traffic and ninety miles an hour down the center stripe like Genghis Kahn on an iron horse, a monster steed with a fiery anus, flat out through the eye of a beer can and up your daughter’s leg with no quarter asked and none given; show the squares some class, give ’em a whiff of those kicks they’ll never know …”
An editor should kiss his reporter on the forehead for characters like that, the clashing of cultures and classes and values.
Enrique is not rich. He has rich relatives. They ignore him.
He pries open the back door to the house where his Uncle Carlos Orlando Turcios Ramos and Aunt Rosa Amalia live. … Three times, he walks up to the door, opens it, closes it and leaves. Each time, he takes another deep hit of glue.
Finally, he enters the house, picks open the lock to a bedroom door, then jimmies the back of his aunt’s armoire with a knife. He stuffs 25 pieces of her jewelry into a plastic bag and hides it under a rock near the local lumberyard.
At 10 p.m., the family returns to find the bedroom ransacked.
Neighbors say the dog did not bark.
“It must have been Enrique,” Aunt Rosa Amalia says. She calls the police. Uncle Carlos and several officers go to find him.
“Why did you do this? Why?” Aunt Rosa Amalia yells.
8. Portray a character’s motivation.
It is necessary for plot. Why does the character do what he does? If there is no reason, then the story – which is to say, the plot – falls apart.
But motivation also shows character.
If your subject does something for one reason, then it says something about her character. If she does it for another reason, then it says something else about her character.
It might show that the subject is brave or cowardly, bold or shy, generous or selfish.
He is 5 years old.
They live on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, in Honduras. She can barely afford food for him and his sister, Belky, who is 7.
Lourdes, 24, scrubs other people’s laundry in a muddy river. She fills a wooden box with gum and crackers and cigarettes, and she finds a spot where she can squat on a dusty sidewalk next to the downtown Pizza Hut and sell the items to passersby. The sidewalk is Enrique’s playground.
They have a bleak future. He and Belky are not likely to finish grade school. Lourdes cannot afford uniforms or pencils. Her husband is gone. A good job is out of the question. So she has decided: She will leave. She will go to the United States and make money and sent it home.
9. Include both good characteristics and bad ones.
No one is all good or all bad. If you want characters to come alive like real people, you need a complex mix of the good and the bad.
Enrique drinks and smokes some marijuana. He wants a tattoo. “A memory of my journey,” he says. El Tirindaro offers to do it free. He shoots up to steady his hand.
Enrique wants black ink.
But all El Tirindaro has is green.
Enrique pushes out his chest and asks for two names, so close together they are almost one. For three hours, El Tirindaro digs into Enrique’s skin. In gothic script, the words emerge:
His mom, he thinks happily, will scold him.
10. Show how your main characters confront the external challenges that face them.
Challenges are necessary for plot. If the main character meets no challenges, then the story just lies there. Its plot is too weak to move, let alone get up and run and jump and skip and dance.
But the way a protagonist meets external challenges tells a lot about his character. Is he straightforward, or passive-aggressive? Is he enthusiastic about the confrontation, or is he an avoider? Is he an optimist about his chances, or a pessimist? Does he take on the challenge right away, or is he a procrastinator?
Drinking water can be impossible to come by. Migrants filter ditch sewage through T-shirts. Finding food can be just as difficult. Enrique is counting: In some places, people at seven of every 10 houses turn him away.
“No,” they say. “We haven’t cooked today. We don’t have any tortillas. Try somewhere else.”
“No, boy, we don’t have anything here.”
Sometimes it is worse. People in the houses turn the immigrants in.
Enrique sees another migrant who has managed to make it around La Arrocera. He, too, needs water badly, but he doesn’t dare ask. He is afraid of walking into a trap. To immigrants, begging in Chiapas is like walking up to a loaded gun.
“I’ll go,” Enrique says. “If they catch someone, it will be me.”
11. Show how your main characters confront the internal challenges that face them.
Challenges are not only external. They can be internal as well. Internal obstacles usually are in the form of internal conflicts. Responsibility conflicts with fear. Love with guilt. How a subject deals with inner conflict tells a lot about what kind of a character she is.
His mother is not talking to him. She will not even look at him. Enrique has no hint of what she is going to do. Lourdes knows. She understands, as only a mother can, the terror she is about to inflict, the ache Enrique will feel and finally the emptiness…
Slowly, she walks out onto the porch. Enrique clings to her pant leg. Beside her, he is tiny. Lourdes loves him so much she cannot bring herself to say a word. She cannot carry his picture. It would melt her resolve. She cannot hug him…
It is for them she is leaving, she tells herself, but still, she feels guilty. She kneels and kisses [his sister] Belky and hugs her tightly … But Lourdes cannot face Enrique. He will remember only one thing that she says to him: “Don’t forget to go to church this afternoon.”
It is Jan. 29, 1989. His mother steps off the porch.
She walks away.
12. Show how your main characters change
…because of the challenges they confront, both externally and internally.
Few of us stay the same. Many of us grow as a result of our experiences in life. Some of us shrink. But we change.
Try to find the signs of such change. Show how your characters grow, or diminish, or even fly apart in a psychoneurotic fit, if that’s what happens.
From “Enrique’s Journey”:
At one point, Enrique glances into a store window and sees his reflection. It is the first time he has looked at his face since he was beaten. He recoils from what he sees. Scars and bruises. Black and blue. One eyelid droops. It stops him.
He was 5 years old when his mother left him. Now he is almost another person. In the window glass, he sees a battered young man, scrawny and disfigured.
It angers him, and it steels his determination.
13. Build antagonists as fully as protagonists.
There is a reason. The characteristics of the good guys show most clearly in contrast to the characteristics of the bad guys.
You won’t make your protagonists stand out by skimping on your antagonists. Without three-dimensional villains to challenge them, heroes can’t help but look weak.
If the Joker is a wimp, it’s hard for Batman to strut his stuff.
Here is what Enrique recalls:
It is night. He is riding on a freight train. A stranger climbs up the side of his tanker car and asks for a cigarette.
Trees hide the moon, and Enrique does not see two men who are behind the stranger, or three more creeping up the other side of the car. Scores of migrants cling to the train, but no one is within shouting distance.
One of the men reaches a grate where Enrique is sitting. He grabs Enrique with both hands.
Someone seizes him from behind. They slam him face down.
All six surround him.
Take off everything, one says.
Another swings a wooden club. It cracks into the back of Enrique’s head.
Hurry, someone demands. The club smacks his face.
Enrique feels someone yank off his shoes. Hands paw through his pants pockets. One of the men pulls out a small scrap of paper. It has his mother’s telephone number. Without it, he has no way to locate her. The man tosses the paper into the air. Enrique sees it flutter away.
The men pull off his pants. His mother’s number is inked inside the waistband. But there is little money. Enrique has less than 50 pesos on him, only a few coins that he has gathered begging. The men curse and fling the pants overboard.
The blows land harder.
“Don’t kill me,” Enrique pleads.
His cap flies away. Someone rips off his shirt. Another blow finds the left side of his face. It shatters three teeth. They rattle like broken glass in his mouth.
One of the men stands over Enrique, straddling him. He wraps the sleeve of a jacket around Enrique’s neck and starts to twist.
14. Give enough attention to minor characters to make them more than stereotypes
…but not so much attention that readers are fooled into thinking minor characters are major characters.
That can be a tough line to walk. Sometimes the temptation is to give minor characters nothing but their names, ages and genders.
But that makes them cardboard characters at best.
Other times the temptation is to use too much characterization, to build them too large. But then they’re not minor characters anymore, and readers grow puzzled, even disappointed, when they don’t do much in the story.
Sometimes all you need is a few brush strokes. Physical attributes, a mannerism and maybe a dash of dialogue. A good thing is to characterize a minor character through the eyes of a major character.
For an example, let’s go back to Enrique’s Uncle Marco and notice this time the extent to which he is developed before he drops out of the story.
Uncle Marco and his girlfriend treat him well. Marco is a moneychanger on the Honduran border, and his family, including a son, lives in a five-bedroom house in a middle-class neighborhood of Tegucigalpa. Uncle Marco gives Enrique a daily allowance, buys him clothes and sends him to a private school.
Enrique runs errands for his uncle, washes his five cars, follows him everywhere.
His uncle pays as much attention to him as he does his own son. … “Negrito,” he calls him fondly, because of his dark skin. … His uncle trusts him, even to make bank deposits. [One day], he tells Enrique, “I want you to work with me forever.”
… Because of [a] security guard’s murder, Marco swears that he will never change money again. A few months later, though, he gets a call. For a large commission, would he exchange $50,000 in lempiras on the border with El Salvador? Uncle Marco promises that this will be the last time.
Enrique wants to go with him.
But his uncle says he is too young. He takes one of his own brothers instead.
Robbers riddle their car with bullets. Enrique’s uncles careen off he road. The thieves shoot Uncle Marco three times in the chest and once in the leg. They shoot his brother in the face. Both die.
Now Uncle Marco is gone.
Building characters reminds us that we can’t be God, but we can get in on some of his fun.