Writing and Shit – part 15 – Fingernails and Dancing Queens and Better Characters

We’re now going to look at some ways you can work on making the people you write about feel real and, if it’s what you need, likeable.


It might be easier to start referring to them as characters, but I’m going to stick with people, so as to keep them on the same level as things (rather than props, clues, McGuffins, symbols) and places (rather than locations, settings, backgrounds, symbols).

I’d like briefly to say a few things about what makes a person believable, on the page, and then give you some practical ways to go about achieving this.

Real people – we feel we know them, often we know in detail what they like and what they dislike, we know what they are like. We feel that most of the time we can say fairly accurately how they are going to behave in a particular situation.

However, real people often surprise us. They go beyond or fall beneath what we expected of them.

Philip Roth said it brilliantly in American Pastoral –

The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again.

The same should be true of people in stories. As readers, we should feel that we know them but also feel they may go beyond or fall beneath what we expect of them. We should be able to get them wrong and wrong and wrong.

In other words, and here is my definition, people in fiction should be capable of believable self-contradiction.

We should be able to read them two main ways – forwards and backwards. Reading forwards, for the first time, we should get to a moment where they make a decision or act in a certain way, and we should be surprised. Oh really, we should think. I didn’t expect them to do that. (That’s the self-contradiction part.) But then, reading backwards, when we’ve come to the end of the book, or perhaps just passed on to the next chapter, we should think, Oh, yes, of course that’s what they’d do. (That’s the believable part.)

This, I feel, is how we think about the people we know.

In trying to achieve this capacity for being believably self-contradictory, in people we’re writing about, we need to make sure that they aren’t fitted together too neatly. Not everything we learn about them (and this is very important) needs to be a confirmation of what we already know about them. At least one contradiction, but perhaps many more than one, needs to stick out.

Exercise: Have a person you have written about be at a wedding reception.

Explanation: I’d like you to think of a person you have written about before. It might be useful for them to be from a novel or story set in the contemporary world, but if you can time-travel them – with all their braveries and terrors – from a previous era, that’s fine, too. Because we are going to put them in a very particular situation, and then we are going to see what they do.

Here’s the set-up – a wedding has taken place. The bride and groom have been married. Food has been served and eaten. Alcohol, too, may have been consumed. The day has progressed and now, in a nearby room, dancing is to take place. But no-one, yet, has started to dance. Your person has finished eating but is sitting, alone or in company, talking or silent, in a room that isn’t the room where the dancing is about to being. But whoever is in charge of the music decides now is the time. They put on a song to which everyone normally dances, a guaranteed floor-filler. (I often suggest ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen.) The question is, how does your person react to this moment? Start with the words, ‘The music sounded out loudly, and…’ Insert your person’s name, then write eight or nine sentences describing exactly how they behave, until it’s clear – from their reaction – what your person is like.

Great. Was that fun? I hope so.

Another exercise: Immediately – before taking a break or thinking of anything else – write a single sentence describing what your person’s fingernails are like. How long? In what condition? False, varnished, whatever.

Very good.

Exercise: Now one more thing – your person’s fingernails smell of something. Write down what they smell of.

(They smell of fingernails is not an acceptable sentence, Mr But.)


You have now written about your person using the two main techniques writers use to describe a character – to do characterisation.

The first, the dancing or not dancing, is ACTION.

The second, the fingernails, is DESCRIPTION.

ACTION is a description of what a person DOES, DETAIL is a description of what a person IS.

A third way, which we are leaving out, is direct telling. This is a more clumsy but also more definite way of giving a person to the reader. It may, in certain circumstances, in certain kinds of writing, be the best way to make the reader feel they know a person. However, for the moment, we are going to avoid telling because it’s a kind of defeat. Why waste a sentence telling us, ‘So-and-so was timid and nervous’ when you can have more fun, and give more fun, by showing exactly how that timidity and nervousness play out in the moment.

When I do this exercise in class, we play this as a game. Hopefully there are enough students to do it both ways.

First, I get one student to read out their ACTION. The music came on, how did their person react?

Then I get everyone in the class to describe exactly the details of that person’s fingernails – as they imagine them.

How do the two things we know about the person fit together, or not fit together?

If, for example, the person doesn’t dance, but stays at the table or heads straight to the bar to get another drink, does that mean the details of their fingernails are untidy, bitten down?

This would logically be the kind of person who, if directly telling was being used, would be described as timid and nervous.

I ask the student who wrote that person’s reaction to the music to read out their definitive fingernail DETAIL. Did the other students guess right?

Now we go the other way. Starting only from the fingernail DETAIL of a person, everyone in the class is asked to say exactly how they act in the music moment.

Let’s say, to change things around a little, this person’s fingernails are long, false, new, rainbow-coloured and glittery. What do you think the person with those nails does when the dance music starts?

Once we’ve gone round everyone, we return to the student who gave us the person’s nails and ask them to definitively tell us how that person acts.

How did we do? Did the other students get close?


How do you give your person depth? I’m going to answer this question very directly: You give them depth by making sure that the ACTIONS they perform aren’t simply confirmed by every DETAIL about them and, vice versa, that every DETAIL of their appearance, dress, speech and so on doesn’t simply provide a neat clue to the ACTIONS they will carry out.

Say we have a person of whom we might say they are timid and nervous. And say we give the DETAIL of their fingernails as ‘bitten right to the quick’. And say we describe them in the music-moment as ‘shrinking further into their chair, as if they wanted to disappear’.

Fine, they are consistent, as a person – we entirely get them. We could anticipate how they might behave in different circumstances.

But – and this is one of the biggest buts so far (and it’s mine, not yours, Mr But) – but in giving them to the reader we have done absolutely no storytelling.

What holds for stories holds also for people in stories.

A story is about something or someone in the wrong place.

Mr, Mrs or Ms Nervous-Bitten-Fingernails-Non-Dancer is a person for whom everything is in place. There is a story happening because, for them, a wedding reception is very much the wrong place.

But their story isn’t a very interesting or deep one. What we have is DETAIL confirming ACTION, ACTION confirming DETAIL, and no gaps.

Stories happen in the gaps opened by they storyteller.

Great storytelling, very often, is about the creation of satisfying gaps.

When you create a gap, the reader will fill it in for you.

Let’s change one thing about our Mr, Mrs or Ms Nervous – let’s change their fingernails.

Instead of ‘bitten right to the quick’ we are giving them these beauties – ‘long, false, new, rainbow coloured and glittery’.

Still, when the music-moment happens, this person is described as ‘shrinking further into their chair, as if they wanted to disappear’.

Can you feel the difference? Isn’t a gap created here into which a universe of story can expand?

As soon as we get glittery fingernails as DETAIL alongside not-dancing as ACTION, we include time in our characterisation. And time is depth.

This new person, nervous with glittery fingernails, is given to us at two moments – the moment at which they had their flamboyant nails done (they look new, so perhaps the day before) and the moment at which they would be expected to bring that flamboyance out.

What might have happened to them, in between those two moments, to explain their action – or their non-action?

A story. Something worth telling.

Something, perhaps, has gone wrong for them, and something has probably – or is about to – go  more wrong.

By changing that single detail about them, and having it not merely confirm how they behaved, we created a deeper, more intriguing and – I’d say – also more likeable person.

If we, just for a moment, try to imagine how they will behave for the rest of the wedding reception, it’s clear that they are a much more exciting, less predictable person then Mr, Mrs or Ms Nervous-Bitten-Fingernails-Not-Dancing.

(You can also do the other reversal, and have the person with terribly bitten fingernails flamboyantly taking to the dance floor. Such an interesting gap there.)

What if we wanted the reader to find this person really sympathetic. How could we make absolutely sure of that?

We will cover that in a short while.

One thought on “Writing and Shit – part 15 – Fingernails and Dancing Queens and Better Characters

  1. Pingback: Writing and Shit – part 14 – Are you writing a story or a tale? | tobylitt

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