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Writing

How to Breathe Life Into Your Characters According to David Sedaris

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Dec 20, 2019 • 6 min read

Best-selling author and humorist David Sedaris uses real people from his real life to create compelling characters in his nonfiction writing. Whether you’re writing a first-person collection of essays like David, or short stories with fictional characters, learn how to create memorable characters using physical appearance, mannerisms, body language, and personality traits.

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How to Breathe Life Into Your Characters According to David Sedaris

A cast of robust and highly individual characters can aid in an essay’s mission to be relatable to a lot of people. But how do you make each one of them come alive on the page? Here are a few pointers:

  • Tell us what your characters look like with just a single unusual detail. The color of a character’s eyes or hair are facts that won’t necessarily define a character memorably. Look for the unique details or quirks about that person. Are their nails bitten? Do they cut their own hair (and badly)? Are their teeth perfect? Are their eyebrows over-tweezed?
  • Describe your characters through their actions. How do they move in the world? If they’re running, how do they run? How do they stand? Where do they go in a crowded room at a party? Are they messy eaters? How do they speak to children? Would they ever pet a strange dog? What would they order in a restaurant? Do they cross their legs every time they sit down? Use an old glove to pump gas into their car because of a fear of germs? Do they knock on wood?
  • Show us who a character is through the use of dialogue. Dialogue can reveal so much about a character’s personality. Do they ask a lot of questions? Do they complain about everything? Use too many adjectives? Ramble? Cut other characters off when they speak? Use demanding phrases? Say as little as possible? Repeat themselves?

David Sedaris’s 7 Tips for Writing About People You Know

One of the stickiest situations you’ll encounter as a nonfiction writer is using your very real (and, often, very alive) friends, family, and acquaintances as characters in your essays. But what if one of those people—whom you haven’t spoken to in, say, a decade—doesn’t want to be in your essay? Are you allowed to write about them? The short answer is yes. Personal essays are snapshots of your memory. If your memory includes ancillary players (and those players genuinely serve the narrative), then they should appear on the page.

  1. Respect the privacy of the person you write about. You can write about a person’s life story and leave them with their most guarded secrets still untold. You can portray them with real flaws and depth without betraying them.
  2. When in doubt, ask permission. If you’re especially worried about writing about someone you know, you can ask for permission from your subject before writing about them. As David says, “Whenever I write about someone in my family, I give it to them first. And I say, ‘Is there anything you want me to change or get rid of?’” Showing them the first draft can help put them at ease. You can honor their final say over what you put in print about them.
  3. Allow the person you write about to be “in on the joke.” Include them in your writing in a way that makes them your coconspirator—in on the joke.
  4. Be attentive. Act like a professional writer and stay tuned in to your surroundings. If you participate and look beyond the surface, the details in the world unfolding around you can shape your subject. This is the best part of living as an observant writer—the moment when the story lands in your lap, David says. If you don’t engage with the people around you, you’ll be less likely to find stories.
  5. Tell us what your character looks like with just a single unusual detail. The color of a character’s eyes or hair are facts that won’t necessarily define a character memorably. Look for the unique details about that person. Are their nails bitten? Do they cut their own hair? Are their teeth perfect? Are their eyebrows over-tweezed?
  6. Describe your character through their actions. How do they move in the world? If they’re running, how do they run? How do they stand? Where do they go in a crowded room at a party? Are they messy eaters? How do they speak to children? Would they ever pet a strange dog? What would they order in a restaurant? Do they cross their legs every time they sit down? Do they knock on wood?
  7. Show us who a character is through their dialogue. Dialogue can reveal so much about a character. Do they ask a lot of questions? Complain about everything? Use too many adjectives? Ramble? Cut other characters off when they speak? Use demanding phrases? Say as little as possible? Repeat themselves?
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13 David Sedaris Books for Further Study

Before you start writing your own memoir populated by characters from real life, a great way to become a better writer is to read the work of good writers. Here are a few works from David Sedaris that can help bring your own stories to the next level:

  1. Stump the Host (1993): a play that David wrote with his sister Amy under the name The Talent Family, performed at La MaMa playhouse in New York City.
  2. Barrel Fever (1994): David’s first time publishing a collection of stories and essays, which includes “Santaland Diaries.”
  3. Naked (1997): David’s first immediate bestseller, Naked is an essay collection addressing David’s upbringing, his mother’s death, his college years, and the time he spent hitchhiking as a young adult.
  4. Holidays on Ice (1997): a collection of Christmas-themed essays.
  5. Incident at Cobbler’s Knob (1997): another play that David wrote with his sister Amy as The Talent Family
  6. “Santaland Diaries” (1998): a short story about David’s experiences working as a department-store elf that was first read on This American Life with Ira Glass.
  7. Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000): This bestselling collection won the Thurber Prize for American Humor. The collection is divided into two parts: the first including essays about his childhood in Raleigh, North Carolina, and his time living in the United States, and the second composed of essays about his move to Normandy, France, with his boyfriend, Hugh.
  8. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004): This collection of essays centers around David’s family story, including his mom and dad. It was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album.
  9. When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008): a collection of essays about a wide variety of topics.
  10. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary (2010): a book of modern-day fables with animals for characters, illustrated by Ian Falconer.
  11. Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls (2013): a book of narrative essays that debuted in the number one spot on the bestseller list.
  12. Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977–2002) (2017): an edited compilation of David’s diary entries.
  13. Calypso (2018): David’s new book, a bestseller.

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Want to Learn More About Writing?

Whether you're just starting to put pen to paper or dream of being published, writing demands time, effort, and commitment to the craft. In award-winning essayist and humorist David Sedaris's MasterClass, learn how to sharpen your powers of observation, how to translate what you see, hear, and experience in the real world into memorable stories, and how to grow as a writer.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on storytelling, character development, and the path to publication, all taught by literary masters, including David Sedaris, Malcolm Gladwell, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Judy Blume, Dan Brown, and more.

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