On Characterization

Michelle Wildgen

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 177.

A few years ago, one of my students got stuck in generalities while trying to describe a family member: good-looking, funny, smart. But words like these don’t tell us much, because these characteristics can show up in a hundred different ways. As a reader I want to know: Is the person a hot Wall Street type in a crisp white shirt, or a sexy surfer with sand in his hair? Is she funny in a self-deprecating way, or so funny at others’ expense that you feel terrible when you laugh?

The exercise I came up with to help that student get more specific became an exercise I have continued to use with students. It’s extremely simple, so simple writers often mistrust it at first. I ask them to create a document describing ten different observations about someone they know well. It might be a roommate, parent, child, sibling, or an old friend. I give them eight prompts and ask them to come up with the last two themselves. My prompts ask for a detailed description of the person’s living space, an activity they regularly do, an activity they would never do, what they wear often or what they have never been seen wearing. I ask about something the writer finds confusing, contradictory, or mysterious about her subject. The writer has to include both positive and negative anecdotes, to ensure she doesn’t accidentally create a caricature.

That’s it—but there are a few crucial rules for doing this exercise effectively. The first is to avoid oversimplification. Each entry might be a few sentences, a paragraph, or even half a page, but I don’t want one-word answers. I want the writer to observe much more fully than that. The second is to not create a cohesive narrative. I ask them to number each prompt and write their replies as a list, because this exercise is about creating a space to focus entirely on observation. That said, writers may later develop and insert those observations into a narrative work that needs depth and characterization. Sometimes the exercise spurs a whole new project.

The third point is the most important of all. The writer has to avoid generalization and focus on observable reality. If she wants to say her mom is generous, for example, she has to describe concrete examples of that generosity: Her mother always leaves a six-pack at the end of her long driveway for the garbage collectors on hot days, for example, or she volunteers for the dirtiest work at the animal shelter. The more carefully the writer observes the nuances of what people do, the more the reader starts to grasp why they do it, and that’s the heart of a well-drawn character.

No matter to whom I give these questions, their answers turn out indelible portraits, often in a single page. (Selfishly, I love reading them, and dozens of people I have never met remain vividly alive in my head.) Once practiced in describing real people this way—making them jump off the page and feel complicated, vivid, and real in all their quotidian detail—writers have a strategy for creating richer, more compelling characters. They understand how much work the right kind of observation can do: It’s often not the grand gestures a reader bonds with, but a character’s daily habits and choices. Information that once felt too mundane to bother including emerges as the richest source of characterization.

If you’re a fiction writer, you might try this exercise too, but I believe it works best when you are already writing and have your characters and situations in mind. When I’ve tried this exercise as a first way to get to know a character, it felt as if I were just making arbitrary choices rather than developing people I’d seen in a few different fictional scenarios.

But you can use this exercise in any genre, in any part of a manuscript, to strengthen the entire piece. It shows you the kinds of details that introduce and flesh out a spindly character or add complication to a flat one. It has a tendency to reveal the writer as much as the subject, which can provide the insight and depth a memoir or story was lacking. For instance, the prompt about what a writer finds mysterious or confusing about someone can offer insights not only into the person being observed, but the observer herself, which is a technique a writer can use in a memoir or apply to the relationships in a fictional story. It’s one of the simplest exercises I have, but it gets inspiring results.


Michelle Wildgen’s fourth novel, Wine People, was published by Zibby Books in August. Her work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine; the New York Times’ Modern Love column and Book Review; and other publications.

Art: Kenny Eliason