By Stephen Jay Schwartz

The thing I find most challenging about writing stories is drawing believable, three-dimensional characters.  We are complex critters, you know—a lot deeper than simply words on a page.  And there’s nothing I like less than reading stock characters engaged in stock activities in a cliché plot.

It all begins with character.  If the character is fundamentally real, and if he accepts the world in which he lives as real, and if he reacts to the sometimes odd or bizarre world around him as a real person would, then we will believe the story as the story unfolds.  Remember, the protagonist takes the reader through his or her journey, and the reader needs to be able to empathize or at least identify with the protagonist if the reader is going to take the ride, believe the ride, enjoy the ride.

When I start to play with ideas for a new novel I open my eyes and ears and brain to the world around me and I let everything in.  Everything gets its say.  A plot idea might morph into a character idea, which might suggest a setting, which makes me think of what might happen in this setting, which makes me think about what kind of person would do such a terrible thing in this setting, which brings me back to character.  It always, always, always comes back to character.

Sometimes I’ll read a screenplay or novel where the plot is so BIG (think Independence Day) that the characters—the supposedly REAL people who participate in this story—have no other function than to appear at crucial plot moments to deliver critical bits of dialogue necessary to forward the plot.  Writers who are aware that a book or screenplay should have a “romantic subplot” also take those stiff, non-dimensional characters and force them to coo at one another, giving them plot-specific opportunities in which to take off their clothes.

Just because a movie is BIG doesn’t mean it can’t have unique, well-developed characters.  We can all think of five or ten big-budget types that titillate us with action and also bring us to tears with character pathos.  Bladerunner comes to mind for me.  It’s a big, action, sci-fi thriller, with wonderful, intriguing and believable characters.  Every one of them is real. 

It’s not hard to identify exceptional characters – just look at Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight for how he developed charming, daring, believable characters using mostly dialogue and a handful of reactions to specific events.  Leonard’s work is brilliant in this respect.  But recognizing a well-drawn character and actually building one are two different things.

When I spent my years doing development in the film business I rarely read convincingly believable characters.  Most screenplays were plot-driven and the screenwriters who had the plot “chops” usually got more work than the “character” writers.  But often, after the testosterone drafts made their rounds, a “character” writer would be brought in to do a “polish,” with the intention of making the characters more believable.  We did this on Outbreak, bringing Carrie Fischer in to do an 11th-hour “character” draft.  So, the character writer is supposed to improve dialogue, provide believable characters to inhabit what can be an unbelievably action-packed world, and take a little edge off with some comedy, when necessary.

Tackling character problems that late in the game doesn’t work, unless the writer goes back to the drawing board to tackle plot and action, too.  You can’t simply adjust knobs on a character in hopes of creating new hues and tones.  The characters need to move around in the plot, make decisions for themselves, change the plot if they have to.  Film producers, for various reasons, want to “lock down” the screenplay.  They’ll say “the script is 85% there, we just need you to do a dialogue polish and make the characters come alive.”  To me, that’s a page-one rewrite.  However, many screenwriters take that assignment and deliver a quick draft they know will never really work—they’re just trying to appease the producer and grab some quick cash.

What I mean to say with all this is…character work is hard.  And it’s the most important thing to get right.  Everything in a good story evolves from and revolves around good characters.

So, how do we write good characters?  Well, we have our own characters to lean on.  Parts of my character influence my protagonist as well as every other character I write.  So, like Freud, we look inward, to our own psychologies.  We can also look at mythic archetypes—certain types of characters who appear over and over again in our folktales, mythologies, biblical stories and nursery rhymes.  Alexandra has written some the definitive blogs here regarding archetypes.  We also learn about character from reading other authors to see how they handle character.  Find your mentors.

Another way to develop great, believable characters is to observe the people who enter your sphere.  Like a good Method actor, look for the little facial tics and the speech impediments and keep those ears open for the little wisdoms that might come your way.  I got my lesson this week when I was moving from house to apartment.  I hired this mover who ended up being a bit of a Buddha.  Black, maybe fifty years old, muscles galore.  Patient as the day is long.  I’ve never met a soul quite as patient as him.  We spent twelve hours straight on the move, and we encountered one problem after another.  Finally, the last big object to go in—the refrigerator—and it just ain’t fitting through the doorways.  We had to take off the front door of the house to get the damn thing out, and then, at 2:00 in the morning, we had to force it into the apartment.  We had to remove the apartment door now, but the spikes in the hinges were all rusted and we had to POUND at them with different objects.  And this guy was calm every moment of the day.  At this point he merely said, “Geez, why is it always the very last thing that gives you all the trouble?”  If it were me, I’d be screaming at the top of my lungs, “God!  What have I done to you, huh?  Because it sure does feel like you’re torturing me.”  I would have pounded my fist and stamped my foot like a very angry rabbit.

But this man, my mover Henry, was as stoic as if he were sunning on a lily pad.  And I realized that my twelve hours with this man was a blessing, that he’d been placed before me so that I may study character in action.  He existed as a real human being, not a stereotype or cliché.  To study him is to study life, and to infuse my characters with qualities like his—like patience—brings dimension to a character that might have only existed to service the plot. 

Look around you.  Study everyone.  If you’ve walked out the door you’ve entered the classroom.

Sorry I haven’t been around for the past couple weeks…I’ve been moving and I’ve had no room in my life to do anything but work, move and write.  At least I’ve been writing, thank God.


24 thoughts on “CHARACTER

  1. Spencer Seidel

    I could not agree more! Characters should always drive plot and not the other way around. If you have a great cast of well-developed characters, a believable plot will fall out every time. I think too often writers force their characters into some aspect of plot the writer particularly fancies and just can't let go. This makes for nothing but inauthenticity, which readers smell a mile away.

    And, PS, I think I've met Henry!

  2. pari noskin taichert

    Congrats on completing the move. Congrats also on meeting Henry and having the smarts to recognize how special he is.

    Character development might well be the most exciting and enjoyable aspect of writing for me. I love meeting these new people and finding out what makes them tick, what their lives are like, how they speak and see the world . . .

  3. Eika


    That was awesome.

    I think, on some level, we always are observing others, to learn how to react to them. That's part of characterization, too, and it always drives me nuts when movies or books have some huge confession, or declaration, and it just moves on without a reaction.

  4. Shizuka

    We need more Henrys in New York.

    I'm glad your move is over and you're writing away.
    The audio version of Boulevard has been my traveling companion the last few days;
    the rhythm of the language is really beautiful to hear.

  5. Chuck

    Love the subject, SJS. This is something I find myself getting complacent with, but at least I'm aware of it. Reading about the big black dude having the patience of Job is a good lesson in not judging a book by the cover. I met a similar guy once, rippling with muscle and a nasty scar on his face. When he opened his mouth, he had a high, somewhat effeminate voice…made me do a double take.

    Good tips. I appreciate it!

  6. Ruth Harris

    Actors say that finding a character's shoes is crucial — also not a bad idea for writers (and I don't mean The Werewolf Wore Prada either!). Sturdy work boots, scruffy slippers, Nikes or Pumas, sensible lace-ups, fine leather loafers, towering stilettos, bunion-sprung pumps — each form of footwear evokes a different kind of character.

    My point is that every detail about a character — clothing, hair, makeup, skin, hands, nails, eyes — can lead to all kinds of associations for the writer & is revelatory to the reader. For me at least, finding the character's voice is crucial. Once I can "hear" him or her speak, I have a way to write them.

    NYTimes bestselling author of HUSBANDS & LOVERS, now on Kindle / My link does not work on this site…Can someone give me help about to make a clickable link that works? I would be extremely appreciative.

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Alex – no gets my refrigerator man but me. Sorry, but we have to be that competitive here in L.A.

    Spence – everything's a character piece. It's either a good character piece or a bad one, but it's a character piece. Unless you're writing about tree bark or something.

    Pari – even though the character work is the most difficult part for me, it's also the most enjoyable. I love getting into other people's shoes.

    Eika – I'm absolutely with you on that. When a significant plot event occurs and the characters react unrealistically, or they don't react at all…that's when I wonder why I spent ten bucks to go see a movie that night.

    Louise – I think it will…time will tell.

    Shizuka – thanks for telling me that – it's music to my ears. I think Ray really captures the rhythm.

    Chuck – we've always got to turn those stereotypes on their heads. Because that's real life. Stereotypes might capture the short-cut, but the real story of human experience is that we are all unique and full of surprises.

    Toni – yeah, I'm trying to think of other storage places where I can move some shit, just so I can book Henry again.

    Ruth – you got it, girl. I wish I had your encyclopedic knowledge of shoes and accessories. I'm very bad at that stuff, but you are absolutely right – these things define our characters and leave little hints as to what lies deeper in their psychology. Right now I'm wearing a pair of British Grinders, which are heavy, motorcycle type boots. They look cool, but they kill my feet. Tremendously painful. But…did I say they look cool?

  8. Dao

    This is such an interesting post! Everyday, I come to Murderati and learn something new. That's why I love this site so much.

    I read a book from a NYT Best-selling author and after finishing it, I just wanted to hurl the book at the wall. The characters were all one-dimensional and even with the plot and twists, I could not swallow it. I am currently writing something and so far, I like the characters. Yet, I feel like I should go back and flesh them out again to make them more alive.

    Congratulations on your move! We all need a Henry in our lives. I hope you will keep in touch with him and learn more about him, his back story and all.

  9. Ruth Harris

    "They look cool, but they kill my feet. Tremendously painful. But…did I say they look cool?"

    So, Stephen, are you (meaning a character we're trying to create) trying to be something you're not? Is looking cool deeply gratifying? Does it get you the kind of girls/boys/career you want? Does it make you feel like an impostor? And what about the pain? Are you a masochist who's into suffering? Does the pain remind you (in a good or bad way) of your poverty-stricken childhood when you had to wear hand-me-down shoes that were too small? Does the pain increase your determination to escape whatever other pain you're experiencing in the course of the novel?

    See, we can go on & on with a fictional character based on just this one attribute. Or at least I can. LOL

    But don't ask me about plot. For me, plot's a b*tch & it always has to come out of character.

    Ruth Harris
    author of NYTimes bestseller
    Husbands & Lovers

  10. Alafair Burke

    It will be interesting to see how Henry eventually works his way onto one of your pages in some surprising way. I'm always shocked when I realize I've created a character so unlike myself and then try to figure out where the person came from. Sometimes it's from a moment years earlier.

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Dao – I find myself referring writers to the Murderati site more and more. It's amazing the kind of information I find by just browsing the archives of all the authors who have blogged here, past and present. It might be cool to publish a book of Murderati blogs – maybe have every author choose include their five favorite posts or something.

    Ruth – let's see, I think I answered "yes" to every one of your questions. So, does that make me the protagonist or the antagonist?

  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    JT – yeah, but these are Grinders, from Brittain. Grinders, they call 'em. What sounds more badass…a boot made by a "doctor," or a boot designed to fucking grind…

    Alafair – elements of Henry will definitley find their way into the work. His characteristics would fit smoothly into either protag or antag. Just being around him made me feel calm. All that existed was the box, the dolly, the wardrobe container, the chair…and they existed only as shapes to fill a space. I witnessed how his mind created rectangles and squares out of misshaped objects, so that other objects could be stacked upon them. He's been doing this for 35 years. Watching him work is hypnotic.

  13. Ruth Harris

    Stephen: YOU'RE asking ME???? LOL

    Either we're dealing with a hell of an identity problem OR a provocative, probably almost universally identifiable-with, character. A no-lose situation.

    Ruth Harris
    author of NYTimes bestseller
    Husbands & Lovers

  14. lil Gluckstern

    Congratulations on completing your move. Now about about Henry-that was a movie, wasn't it? I think when you are writing you put a piece of someone you've known, or a previously unknown, part of yourself into a character. I know, as a reader, character is what grabs me, and I often imagine myself in that character's skin. So now when you feel like kicking and screaming, just think of Henry. What I think is so appealing about him is his being so in the moment, and his stillness. I'm looking forward to your next book.

  15. Spencer Seidel

    Stephen, now that I'm thinking about it, your Henry sounds an awful lot like John Coffey from The Green Mile. Perhaps you and Stephen King have used the same mover?

  16. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    lil – that's it, you nailed it. He is absolutely in the moment, and that's what captures me. I have a very, very difficult time staying in the moment. I'm always running towards tomorrow, full speed ahead.

    Alex captures it as well – the fact that the truly present person compells others to slow down. Henry may not know it, but he's teaching by example. There's also something interesting, on a subconscious level–in BEAT I wrote Abbey Reed as a similar character. She's a medical examiner, but she's also a gardener, and she makes homeopathic ointments and medicines. She is truly in the moment, and it does something to Hayden just to observe her.

    Spence – I can't believe you sluethed out my pseudonym.

  17. JJ

    I once hired your Henry as a production assistant at another time, in another city. He was my right arm. He was wonderful.

  18. KDJames

    Excellent post, Stephen. We have a two-man delivery crew at work and they deliver extremely heavy things that are awkward to maneuver. They're just like your Henry. Solid calm competence. They accomplish impossible tasks every day as if it were nothing out of the ordinary. And to them, it's not. I find it amusing that they're both sort of protective of me and will quietly step in and take over if I ever try to lift anything heavier than a stapler. Please. Who do they think carries in the bag of dog food?

    But what I really want to know — and I can not believe you omitted this crucial piece of information — is whether your fish survived the move. 😉 Hope you all settle in quickly and make the new place a home.

  19. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    JJ – it seems Henrys are everywhere, doesn't it? They appear at times when we need them, if we're wise enough to accept their guidance.

    KD – the fish survived! And the labradoodle is already feeling comfy – with her new ball, kong, bed-thing, treats, etc…

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