Creating Compelling Characters

stein-on-writingWriters are fortunate when they encounter someone in real life who has “character potential,” someone who fills a page with story without effort. A man who has traveled the world hunting rare animals is such a character. A woman hiding with her children during a riot is another. For readers, these characters and their stories are immediately engaging. But writers can’t wait for these “characters” to fall into their laps.

Writers must learn to create such characters who elicit emotion from a variety of readers, without the godsend of such “real life” personalities. How do writers do this?

As Sol Stein (Stein on Writing) says, the writer must learn “the art of characterization, adding details and depth until he has created a character whom we may know better than all but our closest friends.”

Stein suggests that in real life, we writers are lazy. “We say the first thing that comes into our heads.” As an example, he describes a ticket-taker at a movie theater. That person interacts with a stream of people, and deals only in generalizations. That man is tall. That woman is skinny. But a writer must deal with such people differently.

“Frank is so tall, he entered the room as if he expected the lintel to hit him, conveying the image of a man with a perpetually stiff neck.”

That man is not just tall, as Stein writes him, but he is “being characterized through an action.”

As for the skinny woman,

“She always stood sideways so people could see how thin she was.”

Again, the character is described by action.

Characters are best individualized when we see them doing things and saying things, not by the author telling us about them.

One of the first pitfalls of most writers is telling our readers what the characters look like. Don’t ever stop your story to tell what a character looks like, or what a character is wearing (unless the clothing is vital to the scene or the characterization). Let the reader see your character talking and doing things.

Or, have another character describe that character:

I almost missed her at our meeting. She was lost in the crowd on 51st Street. Couldn’t even see her head, which is nuts considering that flaming red hair. I finally spotted her boots among all the other feet: polka-dotted rubber boots. I knew it had to be her.


I had trouble following what he was saying, ’cause I was so caught off guard by his lisp. What grown man lisps? Well-dressed in a nice suit with a nifty tie in a navy-and-green stripe, hair parted and combed to a gloss, and a lisp? How did drug dealers take him seriously?

Find the details that will embed the character in your reader’s mind’s eye and bring that character to life.