Savvy Saturday – Character Sketches

Every good writer needs good, strong characters, right? Of course right! (Kudos for those of you who get that character reference.) The best, strongest characters in books are the ones that carry with them a semblance of reality. Even if the story is set on another planet or in a realm of dragons, even if the character is a mage or a serial killer, these are the characters you can interact with emotionally – because they reflect the way reality could be (at least, if reality worked the way the author says it does).

The best way to create “real” characters, then, is to understand people in this reality. Only then can you create characters who will be believable in a different setting. To help with that, this week’s post will give a few snapshots of real people and real encounters that I’ve had recently – sort of a “Humans of New York” style post, designed to give a look into the characters that inhabit the real world. I hope you find them interesting, and perhaps even inspiring for your own work!


First character: a girl from China in her mid-twenties. She has a round face and a quiet demeanor, wears an unobtrusive light brown sweater and dark pants, and her black hair is cut simple and straight at the shoulders. As she listens to the conversation, she nods and says “mm-hmm” every few seconds to show that she understands what is being said.

The topic of conversation is customer service in different cultures. “I have a funny story,” she says in accented English. With several starts, stops, and seconds spent searching for the right words, she manages to convey the following: a few years before, she had booked a flight on an American airline company that regularly flew between Chicago and Beijing. After she had scheduled her flight, another company also began flying that route. In response, the company with which this girl had booked her flight changed not just the time, but the day on which the plane in question was going to fly.

“Because my English is not so good, I called the Chinese help line to reschedule my flight, because I could not fly out another day,” she said. “They told me that it was my fault for not making plans, even though I could not know ahead of time that another company would start making flights from Beijing to Chicago. They said they would not change my flight, and if I wanted to change, I would have to pay a large fee and buy a new ticket.

“Eventually, I decided to call the American help line in English. When I talked with them, they said the scheduling was all their fault! And they told me they were so sorry for the inconvenience! It took just one hour, and they gave me a new flight on the right day, and I did not have to pay anything, and they were so nice. So I learned to always call the English language help line.”


Second character: a friendly, wide-eyed gentleman from India. With a short stature, a vivid teal polo shirt, thinning black-gray hair, and a wide smile, he is quick to jump into any conversation with enthusiastic comments.

Upon hearing that it is common practice for American stores to accept returned merchandise, he looks at me askance. “Is it?” he asks incredulously. “That is something I do not understand.”

“You can’t return anything in India?” I ask him.

“No, of course not!” he says, emphasizing his words with sharp, vehement hand gestures. “Not anything. You buy it, it is yours. You cannot let people return things. If you let one person return something, then everyone will return everything! It would be bad business.”


Third character: a trim, middle-aged Caucasian professor who wears striped polo shirts and khaki shorts in the middle of winter, has a well-groomed gray beard and short hair, and bounces into class at 9am to teach statistics and research design to undergraduate and graduate students. He grins constantly, talks in a half-shout, and peppers his lectures with stories of adventure in South America and a large smattering of four-letter words.

“If you’re interested in three-way factorial designs,” he says, his eyes lighting up, “I’m teaching a unit on it this summer. It’s seriously cool s**t. It covers all the ways you could possibly want to set up and run one of these little darlings and not f*** it up. Which you will if you aren’t careful. It’s my absolute favorite class to teach.” He pauses with a sheepish grin. “I say that about all my classes,” he admits. “Whichever one I’m teaching at the time is my favorite. They’re just all my darlings. Anyway! We were talking about two by two factorial designs…”


Do you know anyone like these characters? Have you ever experienced a similar situation to the ones above? Post about it in the comments!

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