Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

13.9: Quick Characterization

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard

How do you go about defining a character for your readers when you don’t have many words to devote to the project? What are the tricks for quickly establishing someone’s individuality within your story?

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson. 

Homework: Consider the silhouette test, and then create a list of words that will let you apply it to your characters.

Thing of the week: Brimstone, by Cherie Priest.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Quick tips for characterizing side characters? Give them something weird and memorable, something in conflict with the reader’s expectations. Also something that conflicts with the POV character’s expectations. Or use the tricks people use to remember names, e.g. alliteration. To make a character come to life, write a brief scene or piece from their viewpoint. Play two truths and a lie with your characters! Beware of turning characters into a single quirk, a.k.a. Flanderization. Figure out what makes the character do that thing, then pay attention to how that motivates other things. Use peekaboo moments, add a splash of color to a scene highlighting something unusual about this side character. A juggling guard? Just a momentary glimpse of the motivations and passions of the side characters. To quickly introduce characters, have the characters, justifiably, talk about each other. Beware of overdoing quick characterization of side characters! Finally, make sure that the side characters are doing something when the protagonist walks on stage.

[Mary] Season 13, Episode Nine.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Quick Characterization.

[Mary] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary] I’m Mary.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] We are talking all this month about side characters. It’s a topic we’ve touched on before on Writing Excuses, so I want to dig into something specific about side characters this week. I want to talk about how we characterize people quickly. Because sometimes, you just don’t have a lot of space to dedicate to these side characters. So let’s say you only have a couple sentences to characterize someone. Dan, how do you go about doing it?

[Dan] Kind of the cheap and dirty hack that I use is just to give them something that is, in my opinion, unexpected. Based on what their role is or what their situation is in the story, I will throw something else weird on top of that so that you’ll remember, “Oh, yeah, this is that kid, but also he really likes this one strange thing.”

[Brandon] Right. They put them in conflict with the reader’s expectations. It’s a really good way to make someone memorable.

[Mary] One of the things that I try to do, actually, is that thing, except not just the reader’s expectations, but the point of view character’s expectations. I… Because using that allows me to kind of slide past some of the I am telling you what this character looks like. It also allows me to then convey information about my main character, which, when I’m writing short fiction, I have to be able to get every sentence to do double duty. One of the sneaky tricks that I will use sometimes is I will use some of the tools that people use to remember names in real life. Which is… If the character says their name, I will slide a detail in that is alliterative without…

[Brandon] Wow!

[Dan] Without calling attention to it?

[Brandon] That’s interesting.

[Mary] Yeah. Monty with the mustache.

[Unsure] [inaudible now]

[Brandon] Oh.

[Dan] So, like an example?

[Mary] Monty with the mustache.

[Dan] Monty with a mustache. Okay. Awesome.

[Mary] I mean…

[Howard] Howard with the hairless…


[Mary] Hairless Howard. I get… And there are other memory palace kinds of things that you can do with that, too. So…

[Brandon] Right. Make the guy named Jim a butcher.

[Mary] Yeah.


[Mary] Actually, that would totally work. So, I was… I’m terrible with remembering names. That’s when I meeting someone in real life. So I was taking a class on how to remember names… It doesn’t help me actually that much. It’s a little better. But I suddenly realized that these were all very useful tools for cementing a name with a reader. So… If I have a character who is a jeweler, then I will… One of the details that all call attention to is the earrings that are hanging from her pendulous earlobes…

[Brandon] Nice.

[Mary] If I have named her Patricia, pendulous…

[Howard] Pendularia…


[Mary] Yeah. Penny. That is a very sneaky… I do not deploy that all the time, but that is a trick that works distressingly well.


[Howard] I think I got better with side characters once… And this is kind of coming back to the name thing. Once I realized that I wasn’t good with names, and I wanted to be, so I started practicing any time I was in public. I learned the names of all the people working the line at the place where I got salads. In the course of doing that, they always gave me the best strawberries. Because I was the guy who came in and knew everybody’s names. But in the course of learning their names… They were all wearing identical clothing. They’re all working this salad line. But in the course of learning their names, I forced myself to remember some of these details. I taught my brain that this is important. So I started retaining that information. It’s fascinating that the two seem to be related. If… I will often see in movies, when I can’t tell two side characters apart, I know they’ve done it wrong. Because I’m pretty good at tracking those things, and if I can’t tell, then it’s just… It’s not been done right.

[Brandon] So…

[Dan] Well…

[Brandon] Go ahead, Dan.

[Dan] The… One counterexample being something like Crabbe and Goyle from Harry Potter, who are supposed to be interchangeably faceless.

[Brandon] How do you characterize people without viewpoints? Let me explain this. I find it, as a writer, really easy if I give myself a brief viewpoint through someone’s eyes to dig into their back story, to kind of discovery write…

[Mary] Luxury!

[Brandon] Who they are, right? And just suddenly they come to life. If I don’t have a viewpoint, then I have a lot of trouble with that. It’s like…

[Mary] I will go ahead, sometimes, even when I’m doing short fiction, I will go ahead and do a little bit of an exploratory scenelette thing from the other character’s point of view. Usually the same scene that I’m writing. Especially if I’ve got a character that is being very flat, which still happens sometimes. It’s just you’re not getting traction on them. So I’ll do exactly that. I’ll write that scene from their point of view, which helped me figure out what their motivations are, and some of the physical… The body language that they’re going to be using. Then I’ll flip back to my main character, do the scene again, incorporating the information that I’ve learned. Which will often… I don’t do that every time, but it’s a very useful exercise to engage in sometimes.

[Brandon] I’ve seen you do something similar.

[Dan] Yeah. So the thing that I do, all the time… And this is… This is such a dumb little thing. I will play two truths and a lie with my characters. Because then I get to know things about them, and I get to know what kinds of things they would lie about. It’s fascinating. I’ve done it with… I think at this point, all of my young adult series. The one I’m writing right now, I actually put a scene into the book because I find it so interesting. But just to watch them tell truths and tell lies. Inevitably, I’ll have one character that tries to cheat. It just tells me a lot about who they are, very quickly.

[Mary] I want to point something out that you said about what are the things that they would lie about and why would they lie about them? I think that when we have characters who wind up dropping into being just a single quirk, then I think one of the reasons that that happens is because we’ve thought, “Oh, I’m going to do that quirk. I’m going to give him this quirky thing.” That the flanderization…

[Brandon] Right. We’ll talk about flanderization in a minute. We can just dig into it right now. Why don’t you tell us what flanderization is?

[Mary] So, flanderization is referring to the slow evolution of a character into just being a quirk. It relates to what happened to the character Flanders on The Simpsons. That he started out as being this very rounded character, and then eventually became a single joke.

[Brandon] Because when people saw him come on the screen, they all wanted him to do his thing. So he did his thing, and the writers all just had him do his thing. Then he stopped being a person, and started being a quirk.

[Mary] So, I think one of the things that you can do to keep that from happening is figure out why your character does that thing. Then, only deploy it when the triggers happen. If you want them to do it, then you have to give them the trigger, and the trigger then has to be coherent to the rest of the story. It also makes the character more rounded, because you… Whatever reason they have to do that thing, that same reason is going to motivate a lot of other different choices.

[Brandon] Month, we’re going to dig into this kind of idea really deeply. We’ll do an entire podcast on the idea of characters who are self-contradictory, or characters who wear different hats in different social situations and act differently in those social situations.

[Mary] Spoiler alert!

[Brandon] We will dig…

[Mary] Everyone does.


[Brandon] Into this a lot.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. You are actually going to tell us about Brimstone.

[Mary] Yes. Brimstone by Cherie Priest is fantastic. It is a story set right after the 1st World War. There are two main characters. The… One of them is a young woman who is a medium. She has traveled to this new small town to learn how to use her powers. It’s a real town that really had a spiritualist movement in it, and still does. The other character is a man who survived the war and has come back with a ghost. But he doesn’t realize he has a ghost. Things just keep catching on fire. It’s their interaction and figuring out what it is that is haunting him and has come back with him from the war. The characterization in this is so rich. It’s a huge cast, because she’s in this small town, filled with spiritualists that she’s meeting. There’s… It’s this very huge community. Each character feels distinct and individual. Even ones that are on stage just for a few moments. It’s… Even the ones who actually never come on stage, because they’re dead already.


[Mary] It’s wonderful storytelling. It’s…

[Brandon] Brimstone.

[Mary] Brimstone.

[Brandon] By Cherie Priest.

[Mary] By Cherie Priest.

[Dan] And if you’ve never read Cherie Priest, she’s one of the few writers who can hook me from the very first sentence of a book. The just… The writing itself, the language is incredible.

[Mary] It’s written in an epistolary form so that each character is… That what you’re reading are there journals.


[Brandon] So one of the things I’ve learned over the years for characterizing side characters in specific, doing things quickly, is what I call peekaboo moments. It’s a measure of great gratification to me as a writer when occasionally someone will come up and say, “Oh, this little side character just came to life for me.” Almost always it somebody I’ve done one of these peekaboo moments, where you are writing a story. In general, you’ll describe the scene and then focus in on the main characters and have the conversation or the conflict and things like this. Everything else fades to background, even some of the side characters who are coming in and interacting with them. What I like to do is occasionally say, “No, we’re going to add a splash of color to this specific scene, to this specific person. We’re going to fade them from the black-and-white background into the characters paying attention to them, saying, ‘Oh. This person wasn’t what I thought they were.'” This guard, who’s standing guard at the door, isn’t the person I thought they were. They are, between… While they’re waiting, they’re standing there juggling or something like this. What I tried to do in these peekaboo moments is show a moment of humanity and back story and passion from somebody who’s not related to the main story at all, just so that you get a glimpse that hey, all these people populating this world have their own motivations and their own passions. I find that the occasional use of one of these can really add a lot of vividness to your story. Or using them with a character who’s often in the scene, but is never the main character. The reader will take that character and take that image of them and bring it to the next scenes where they’re going to be like, “Oh, yeah. This is the person who has twin daughters and is always on the lookout for two copies of things, because they like to give it to their twin daughters.” I don’t know. Something like that, that human… Gives humanity to the background characters.

[Dan] There’s a… One of my favorite movies is Brick by Ryan Johnson. Which is a… Basically a film noir, but set in a modern high school. As much as I love it, I could not tell you who any of the side characters are, except for one drug dealer, who pauses somewhere around the second act break and gives a little monologue about how much he likes the Lord of the Rings books. He’s such a beautiful character, because of that moment. It’s amazing how much richness that adds.

[Howard] One of the tricks that I use is having the characters, justifiably, talk about each other. The 18th… 18th, good Lord!… Schlock Mercenary book, one of the opening scenes, the company’s about to take a job, and our protagonist is talking to her sister. Her sister’s saying, “You know, I need medical help.” She’s like, “I’m not a doctor. Why are you calling me?” “You work for a mercenary company. You got battlefield medics, don’t you?” “Well, yeah, our doctor. I guess she’s okay. But our battlefield medic is like a walking cutlery station.” Then we have the battlefield medic show up behind her and say, “Saved your life.” Schlock says, “She also hears really well.”


[Howard] Now we have, in two panels, insight into five characters. Okay, it helps that I’m able to illustrate them, so some of this context is…

[Luxury! Chuckles]

[Howard] But the… I did it specifically. I’ve got a spreadsheet for this. I did it because I knew these characters are all going to be critical to this story, and I need to introduce the reader to them early in a way that is memorable.

[Brandon] But doesn’t take a lot of panel space.

[Howard] But doesn’t take a lot of panels. Yeah. It took two panels. And while this is happening, we are moving the story forward by establishing why this job is going to make sense for the company to take.

[Brandon] There are some books out there, and I was going to give the kind of warning, that you can’t do this too much in most books. If every scene, you’re spending a paragraph on five different side characters, then suddenly the point of quickly characterizing…

[Mary] A paragraph!

[Brandon] Yeah.


[Brandon] But there are some books that this is kind of the way the book is. We’ve recommended the Gollum and the Jinn.. the Genie… The Gollum and the…

[Mary] Jinni.

[Brandon] The Gollum and the Djinni on the podcast before. I read that because you guys recommended it.

[Mary] [inaudible]

[Brandon] It is a story mostly about the side characters. On this page, you will spend three pages on this side character. On this one, you’ll… They just kind of are there, populating the story and constantly interacting with the main characters. But the main characters are almost there as an excuse to explore entire community… [cough] Excuse me.

[Mary] I think one of the reasons it works in that book is because everything is new to the main characters. So that’s one of the reasons that it works, is because of the POV focus on who is this interesting person that I’ve encountered that is unlike anything that I’ve ever seen, living in a glass bottle for a thousand years. So this is… There are many other books that do that where I think it does not work, it’s not compelling and engaging.

[Brandon] I would agree.

[Mary] Can I offer one other trick? Think about… One of the things that I will do sometimes is think about where the character was or what they were doing before the protagonist walked on stage. Because I think one of the things that will make a character seem flat is when they have just been waiting for the main character to appear. So, it’s… You don’t even have to give the character a name or anything like that, but if my main character walks in and the clerk behind the counter wiped mustard off her mouth and then smiled brightly. “Can I help you?” That character already feels more real and compelling than just…

[Brandon] That’s a really good tip.

[Brandon] I think we’re out of time. Howard, though, you’ve got a cool thing that cartoonists use.

[Howard] Oh, yeah. The silhouette test. It’s not… Cartoonists, comic book writers, anybody who’s working in sequential art where there are characters.

[Mary] And puppeteers.

[Howard] Yes. Puppeteers. If you’re going to keep these characters straight, they have to be able to pass the silhouette test. Which is where all of the details of the characters are removed, all you can see is the outline, or all you can see is the filled outline, just the silhouette. If you can’t tell them apart, something has to change. I… I have… I ask myself this all the time. What is the prose equivalent for the silhouette test? What I’ve kind of boiled it down to is the adverbs and adjectives that I will so rarely let myself use when I’m describing characters. Which are the ones that I would only use on character A and would never use on character B? Just make a quick list of those adjectives and adverbs. Once I have those, when I am writing the characters, those adjectives and adverbs need to disappear. Because you expand them out into other things.

[Brandon] So your homework…

[Howard] Come up with those.

[Brandon] Is to come up with those. Yeah, you don’t necessarily want to always describe somebody who comes on scene as greasy. But if on one scene, they’re the person who’s always eating a big hamburger and dropping bits of it to they… To their jeans, then that image you can use repeatedly.

[Howard] So, the homework. Take your cast of characters, and make their adjective/adverb list, so that, in terms of those words, they are passing the silhouette test for you.

[Brandon] That’s great. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.