How to Write Compelling Characters

Authored by Malcolm Gladwell


The act of writing about others is an opportunity to investigate the contents of someone else’s mind and present it to readers so they can transcend their own experience and see something from someone else’s perspective. But to do that, you must portray your character in a compelling and accurate way.

Part 1 of 8

Summon the character’s spirit

Describe their words and actions and the unique details in how they say/do them so that the reader gets a glimpse of how wonderfully and spectacularly weird they are. For example, if you’re writing a profile on Wall Street trader Nassim Taleb, include the fact that he repeatedly and affectionately calls one of his employees “lazy” but in a way that actually means “genius.”

Part 2 of 8

Describe the character by describing other people

Other characters can provide a vivid contrast to your main subject, such as this description of Nassim Taleb’s coworker: “[Mark] Spitznagel is a blond Midwesterner and does yoga; in contrast to Taleb, he exudes a certain laconic levelheadedness. In a bar, Taleb would pick a fight. Mark would break it up.”

Part 3 of 8

Stack your descriptions

On its own, describing someone as blond (so you think he’s not that smart), or as a Midwesterner (he’s boring), or as one who does yoga (he’s some kind of dreamy millennial) is rather simple and clichéd, but if you stack them, you quickly paint a portrait of someone who’s a bit more three-dimensional—even if they’re not your main character.

Did you know?

You don’t need to be like Proust and write pages and pages of description. Stacking images is an efficient way to quickly establish characters.

Part 4 of 8

Write about your character from the perspective of others

Your friends, family, and coworkers describe you very differently than you describe yourself, so when you construct a profile this way, it can be very telling about the main character.

Part 5 of 8

Describe your character’s world

There is as much value in describing the physical space someone inhabits as there is in describing the person themselves. It can be just as strong, if not stronger, to describe their bedroom, as their location can paint an incredibly effective portrait.

Did you know?

You can be even more specific by showcasing the location where they do the primary action of your story. For example, focusing on the affluence and 1960s aesthetic of the advertising agency where Viennese psychoanalyst Herta Herzog worked as a motivational researcher.

Part 6 of 8

Set the stage for what’s interesting about your character

Locate the thing—whether it’s an idea or context—that draws readers into your story. If you’re writing a story about Ron Popeil, the infomercial pitchman, the significant conflicts in his life are with his own heritage and family legacy, so focusing on that is a powerful way to introduce Ron as a character. Then when he’s shown delivering his infomercial pitch, the audience is doubly awed by his skills and the adversity he overcame to achieve them.

Part 7 of 8

Write on your character’s behalf

Your characters aren’t writers—they can’t explain themselves to the world. As a writer, YOU can write about them so they would feel like they were represented accurately and treated fairly. Render your character as they see themselves.

Part 8 of 8

Practice your writing

Think of being a writer as similar to being an athlete—they practice much more frequently than they compete, and you should follow suit. Use any of the methods above to “summon the spirit” of a friend: Interview their friends and family to compile a profile, spend time in their personal environment, and write about that for practice.

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MSCHF Drop #27
is MSCHF Drop #27