Quotidian Writer Episode 2: Characterization

Diane Callahan
13 min readApr 10, 2024

This is the transcript of my Q&A writing advice podcast, Quotidian Writer, which can be found on Spotify, YouTube, and other platforms.

Hi there! I’m Diane Callahan, fiction editor, YouTuber, arts marketer, and writer of all the things. Today, I’m answering questions about characterization submitted by my audience members. All of these questions were absolutely amazing. I’m sorry I couldn’t get to them all, but seriously, thank you for thinking so deeply about this topic with me.

This time, I’ve chosen four questions to answer at length.

Question 1: How do I write a character that thinks different from myself/prevent my characters from just being clones of myself?

There were several variations on this question about writing characters who aren’t like you as the author. One person mentioned being an introvert writing extroverted characters. Another commenter said, “I really want to know how to write a character that’s smarter than you. Hard for me since I’m a dumbo.” This is a pretty common dilemma for any writer; our own thoughts and experiences are what we know best.

I should mention that I’m actually all for self-insert characters, where authors create characters with life stories or personalities that are basically identical to their own. It’s common in a lot of great literature. You’ve got Dante’s Inferno, Plath’s The Bell Jar, Kerouac’s On the Road; Kurt Vonnegut made himself a literal character in some of his works. Some people might call books like that autofiction or autobiographical novels. Either way, I think we all fundamentally gravitate toward characters who are similar to ourselves in some way, and that’s perfectly okay! Those characters interest us because storytelling is partially about self-exploration.

As one Redditor put it, “[Self-inserts] are not inherently bad, it’s just that most people aren’t great at taking an unbiased, critical look at themselves, so author self-inserts are little more than wish fulfilment. If you can make a character based on yourself that’s just as flawed, complex and interesting as any other, then go ahead. Although you probably want to make sure that’s not the only kind of character you write.”

But one technique for making characters different enough from you is what I call the big similarity or big opposite approach. That’s where you’re giving a character ONE larger-than-life trait that’s either super similar to your own personality or the polar opposite.

When choosing a similar trait, you’re not copying every trait of yours, but rather you’re focusing on one key personality metric. For example, with my protagonists, I’ve leaned into showcasing my ambition or my death anxiety or my background in classical music — but not all three at once. They’re not clones of me, but because we have one thing in common, that makes them easier for me to write.

You can do this for a whole cast of characters by taking one quality of yours and distributing a different personal trait to each character. One might have a similar upbringing as you did; another might share your love for horses. You’re also giving them other traits that aren’t like yours to balance them out as people. That way, you’re injecting authenticity into the character, but you’re not cloning your entire self — just that one aspect, whether it’s a positive or negative quality.

Instead of giving a character a similar trait, you can make them deliberately the opposite of yourself to the extreme. If you tend to hide your true feelings, how about writing someone who’s always honest? If you grew up in the countryside, write a character who knows the city like the back of their hand. This is also where interviewing people is valuable, especially in the case of expertise or certain backgrounds.

And when you’re writing a character who’s “smarter” than you in some way, it’s not that you’re not smart, because everyone is an expert at something. But you can’t be a nuclear physicist and an archeologist AND a private investigator, although don’t let me tell you what you can and can’t do. The thing is, we all have skills or experiences or even personality traits that others aren’t as familiar with, but don’t let that stop you from writing someone who’s completely different from you. If you’re an introvert, hang out with an extrovert for a while, ask them questions, tell them you’re writing a book. A lot of people enjoy thinking of themselves as characters in a story and appreciate being asked about their perspective.

Question 2: How to convey character through dialogue without making everyone sound the same? Even if two characters agree on something, their personality/traits/goals/voice should still be distinct from one another; however, I struggle with this.

I think that writing someone who doesn’t talk like you can be even harder than writing someone who acts differently than you do. It’s so tempting for me to make all my characters talk like I do because that takes zero effort to write. But personality comes through in dialogue, so it’s really important that their speech is differentiated.

The key is focusing on both the way the characters talk and what they enjoy talking about, and you can lean into something that’s super similar or completely opposite to your own speech patterns. If you tend to ask other people a lot of questions, then maybe this character is rarely curious about others and more interested in talking about themselves. Or maybe they speak much more formally than you do.

I also recommend finding some videos of people speaking off the cuff and transcribing what they’re saying. I was a transcriptionist for a while, and that helped me catch on to speech tics and the way people construct their sentences. Those things are influenced by culture and time period and profession. You can even base a character’s speech off a particular person, like from your personal life or someone famous — a celebrity, politician, artist, what have you.

The reader should be able to guess who’s talking based on the dialogue alone, like this line from Lord of the Rings: “I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!” That is, of course, Samwise, the tenderhearted hobbit who is always glowing with positivity and exclamation points.

Personality comes through in that combination of speech quirks and the likes and dislikes the character expresses.

Question 3: It is easy to physically describe different characters, but how do you show differences in temperament, psychological makeup?

This was another key theme in the questions: how to differentiate characters from each other, not just from you as the author. Related to that, there was a comment about making a character feel like a whole person and showing depth — building on a core temperament, as someone put it, while avoiding caricatures.

First, I think we need to consider how we tell people apart in real life, psychologically. Yes, it’s easy to describe physical differences, but those surface-level qualities can be important to identity, too. The way we dress or carry ourselves can serve as a physical manifestation of our psychological makeup. Personally, I dress in quite a feminine way because I was bullied as a young teenager for not being very feminine. Plus, I also get more compliments when I wear a nice dress versus jeans and a T-shirt that might be more comfortable. So, my sense of fashion is crafted, in part, from my own desire to be liked by other people, whereas someone with a more “screw you” personality might care less about how they dressed.

That kind of outward manifestation is where “show, don’t tell” comes in with characterization. What are the ways you can see or hear someone’s temperament? It’s in our words, our actions. It’s also in our internal thoughts or emotional reactions, but those are often conveyed externally through dialogue and choices that impact the story. Depending on the story’s point of view, you might convey more internal thoughts within the narrative, but you’re not likely doing that for every single character.

So that’s why it’s important to think about the connection between a character’s actions and their internal life. Why does the Great Gatsby throw elaborate parties? It’s to impress Daisy, his long-lost love, and attract her attention. It shows that he’s an ostentatious person who wants to prove that he belongs in the world of the rich elites, even though he’s “new money.”

Another external measure of internal life, I feel, is relationships. Our relationships define us as people — our families, romantic partners, friends, pets, enemies. Showing how someone behaves around particular people in their lives will reveal a lot about their temperament and hidden layers, especially their relationship with their parents and siblings.

For me, all these combinations of factors make a person, but in characters, we often have one or two things that stick out about them to make them distinct. We can’t have six different qualities fighting for dominance because then the character becomes fuzzy in our minds. It helps to have one or two bigger qualities at the forefront and all the others are background elements; they’re there, but not what people mention first when they describe them. This goes for both physical and personality characteristics, like “his big forehead and his even bigger temper.”

There’s one character trick I really love; it involves giving each character a verb that describes what the person is most likely to do in the face of conflict. I learned this from my friend Jordan Riley Swan, who learned it from another author, who heard it from a different author. It’s been passed down through generations. But I’ll give you some examples. These were some of the verbs/verb phrases Jordan chose for the characters in a young adult fantasy novel he was working on, as part of their character profiles:

  • Outsmart or think one step ahead (that was the protagonist, an underdog who has to make up for her physical limitations by being smarter than everyone else)
  • Blame (this is for the dragon supporting character; he always blames others or the extenuating circumstances when things go south; very rarely does he blame himself)
  • Charm (or play false hero; this is an antagonist, as you might guess)
  • Mediate (as in “act as a mediator,” someone who always keeps the peace in the group when other characters are arguing with each other)

And I know The Hunger Games is overused as an example, but Katniss Everdeen has a defined personality. Her verb might be “Protect,” and that verb manifests itself through different actions across the trilogy. She protects her sister by volunteering to be in the Games in her stead; she teams up with Rue to protect her as the youngest and weakest fighter; she protects Peeta by risking her life to get him medicine. These are all different scenarios where she stays true to that core action of protecting someone else.

Of course, in most genres you want to avoid Flanderization, which is named after Ned Flanders from The Simpsons. That’s when a character’s core trait or quirk is leaned on so much that it becomes their entire personality; Ned Flanders goes from being this do-gooder Christian neighbor to over-the-top religious zealot across the seasons. That overdependence on one quality is how a character becomes a caricature rather than a fully realized person.

With that in mind, you can take that core quality, that key verb, and put the character in a situation where they feel compelled to do something other than what they would normally do. I believe the truly interesting character-revealing moments are when you push your characters to do something unexpected. It’s when the person who usually protects others instead hurts the ones they love. It’s when you have the last part of this quote from The Name of the Wind, where you have a pressure point:

“There are three things all wise men fear: the sea in storm, a night with no moon, and the anger of a gentle man.”

That’s the contradiction. When do we violate our own patterns of behavior? What circumstances will spark anger in an otherwise gentle man? We’re also quite capable of holding contradictory beliefs. Like the narrator of Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, one of my favorite novels — he’s a complex person as a gay man who is also deeply homophobic.

Sometimes our actions and beliefs are at odds, and that’s what gives us psychological depth.

Question 4: How to make the characters struggle with the “plot” without making them look stupid. I’m afraid I’m not making myself clear but I’ve been struggling with showing that sort of character growth.

This question is so fascinating to me because I constantly see book reviewers complain about main characters doing quote-unquote “stupid” things. Part of me understands this criticism, especially for readers who prefer likable protagonists or who tend to imagine themselves in the main character’s place as a form of escapism.

Usually, though, readers might feel that the character is only making an ill-advised decision so the story can happen! It’s manufactured conflict that feels avoidable, especially if the character has been previously established as a smart, rational person. There are a lot of names for this trope, including plot-induced stupidity, contrived stupidity, idiot plot, or idiot ball, the latter of which TV Tropes defines like this:

“…the person carrying the idiot ball is acting Out of Character, misunderstanding something that could be cleared up by asking a single reasonable question, or not performing a simple action that would solve everything. It’s almost as if the character holding the ball is being willfully stupid or obtuse (or impulsive) far beyond what has been established as ‘natural’ for them. Frequently, it’s only because the story (and by extension, the writers) need them to act this way, or else the chosen plot/conflict for the episode won’t happen.”

Still, I’d argue that characters messing up is realistic. All humans make mistakes. But if you’re worried about the reader thinking a character’s actions are stupid, that usually means you need to make their motivations more believable in that moment. Even if the reader doesn’t agree with the choice, they can at least understand why the character did it.

For example, why do people do objectively stupid things like jump in a frozen river just to say they did it? It could be because they feel pride in doing dangerous things, especially if it’s an act of manliness. Or they feel peer pressure because their friends are doing it, or they see themselves as invincible in the sense that bad things are what happen to other people and not to them.

Everyone has some degree of risk complacency, I feel, like when you’ve sped a million times before on the highway and never had an accident so you don’t think there’s any real risk. Or if you were a zookeeper, you might be cautious on your first day in the lion cage, but after working there for years, you’d probably become less cautious because you think you understand the situation well enough and would recognize the danger. Or you might be carrying an overfilled bag of cat poop up the basement stairs, and you’re debating if you should’ve taken the extra two minutes to double-bag it just as it breaks and three pounds of excrement and litter spill down every step — not that I know from personal experience.

We tend to take shortcuts to save time and energy. That’s hubris for you, overconfidence!

And other times, it’s a matter of having limited information. In that case, it’s not really a lapse in judgment so much as it is a reasonable decision with catastrophic consequences. Classic example: Oedipus killing his father and marrying his own mother, but he doesn’t know their identities at the time. There’s also Romeo and Juliet, where Juliet fakes her own death, and that leads Romeo to kill himself, which leads to Juliet’s tragic death. We make decisions based on the information available to us.

Also, I think the stupid behavior should relate to a preestablished personality trait. Like if a character has this pattern of behavior across the story where they’re shown to be impatient, then their decision to jump into battle before they know the situation will match up with their past actions. That solves the problem of their choice being “out of character.” In a similar vein, one of my favorite words is “hamartia,” and the modern definition of that is “a fatal flaw leading to the downfall of a tragic hero or heroine.” The novel Things Fall Apart has a tragic hero who has pretty serious anger issues and kills people on purpose and on accident. Every time he hurts someone, even when it’s objectively a terrible decision for himself and others, it makes sense for his character.

I also feel readers can be more sympathetic toward characters who aren’t making the decision from a rational place. Even if they’re normally calm and logical, if their spouse just died, their grief might get the better of them. The same goes for anger, jealousy, or fear — those really strong emotions that can cause these gut reactions that are almost self-destructive. Those emotions might even lead them to drink or do drugs that could further put them in a state where bad decisions are more likely to happen. In that sense, someone who is normally patient can be pushed to do something rash if they’re in an emotionally volatile situation.

So, stupid decisions can come from a character feeling overconfident that they can prevent bad outcomes; taking shortcuts to achieve goals; having limited information; having a personality trait or past history of a certain flaw; being overcome by emotion or substances; and probably a number of other motivations. But the important thing is to make the reason behind the character’s choice clear on the page, even if it’s irrational.

I also encourage you to ponder this question: What’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever done, and why did you do it? Can you use that same logic for one of your characters?

Time flies when you’re having fun, so I’ve already gone past my fifteen minutes. You can find the full transcript of this episode on Medium, and I collect questions for my upcoming podcasts on my YouTube community page. If you want to support this podcast, you can buy me a coffee on Ko-fi at ko-fi.com/quotidianwriter. Feel free to check out my videos, articles, and publications on my website at quotidianwriter.com.

Whatever you do, keep writing.