Malcolm Gladwell’s 6 Tips for Creating Characters: How to Write Strong Characters

Written by MasterClass

Apr 26, 2019 • 5 min read

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Malcolm Gladwell Teaches Writing

If you’ve ever dug into the social science of the twenty-first century, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with Malcolm Gladwell. Through his books, articles, podcasts, and television appearances, Gladwell has become a fixture in contemporary culture. But, despite his forays into a variety of media, Gladwell is primarily known as a writer.


Who Is Malcolm Gladwell?

Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, where he has worked since 1996. He is the author of five nonfiction books on sociology, psychology, social psychology: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference (2000); Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005); Outliers: The Story of Success (2008); What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures (2009); and David and Goliath (2015). All of his books have been New York Times bestsellers. In a review of Gladwell’s popular podcast, Revisionist History, The News & Observer wrote: “If there’s such a thing as a storytelling gene, Gladwell has some super-evolved DNA mutation. He might be the best storyteller on the planet.”

Malcolm Gladwell’s Tips for Creating Strong Characters

As an author of nonfiction, Malcolm Gladwell does not invent characters from scratch. Rather, he takes real people and presents them in an engaging and compelling way. The way he does this varies. He once said, “You don’t need to be Proust and do pages and pages of description.”

Here are six key techniques that Gladwell uses to create compelling, nonfiction characters.

  1. Summon the character’s spirit. In 2002, Gladwell wrote a piece for the New Yorker on an investor named Nassim Taleb. Nassim was magnificent—unusual, delightful, brilliant, fun. Gladwell’s challenge—and your challenge when describing any personality in a piece of writing— was to give the reader a glimpse of Nassim’s magnificence. So to summon the spirit of Nassim, rather than describe the man himself, Gladwell described a scene that featured banter and dialogue between Nassim and his colleagues. He shared funny details—for example, Nassim affectionately calls a subordinate “lazy” several times—letting the characters’ contrasting personalities define Gladwell’s subject.
  2. Use narrative to convey description. You can write pages and pages of physical description of a person, but your subject comes to life when you offer context about why they might look the way they do, what they’re doing when they look this way, and how the way they look corresponds to how they act.
  3. Create images for your reader to internalize. When Gladwell wrote about the Nobel-winning scientist Howard Temin, he had to paint a distinct portrait of his subject, who was not a typical scientist. He described Temin, who had “crazy hair and dancing eyes,” by detailing Temin’s love of literature and philosophy. He was raised by activist parents. He gave his bar mitzvah money to a refugee camp. You quickly, by the third sentence, understand that Temin is a very different kind of scientist.
  4. Don’t just describe your character. Describe their world. There is as much value in describing the physical world a person inhabits as there is in describing the person themselves. If you could choose to describe one of your siblings by the way your sibling looks, or by what your sibling keeps in their bedroom, Gladwell says to choose the bedroom.
  5. Seize chances to use juxtaposition and metaphor. Imagery and environment offer opportunities for juxtaposition and metaphor. In one 1999 story of Gladwell’s, which discusses the 1960s advertising firm Tinker, he finds several ways to set the scene—a stark-white penthouse with modern art on the walls—in contrast with his subject, the Viennese psychoanalyst Herta Herzog. That contrast, Gladwell says, is what’s arresting about the image.
  6. Practice, practice, practice. Knowing Gladwell’s techniques does not imbue an individual with the ability to sit down and write like Gladwell. This skill of scene-setting and world-building comes with practice. Think of yourself the way an athlete thinks of themselves. Athletes practice much more than they play, and so should you. Find new ways of describing characters by focusing on what’s happening around them.

Why Are Strong Characters Important in Writing?

Most people associate strong characters with fiction, but the truth is both fiction and nonfiction benefit immensely from believable characters who feel real and who resonate with the reader.

When developing characters—whether those are fictional characters or people an author has researched in real life—writers typically keep the following things in mind:

  • Is my main character compelling? Or are the best characters in my story currently slotted as supporting characters? If it’s the latter, consider reconfiguring the piece’s point of view. A character’s personality and personal arc must be compelling enough to sustain an entire narrative built around them. Otherwise, you may have picked the wrong main character.
  • Do I go beneath the surface? Some authors spend a lot of time concerning themselves with superficial traits, like a character’s name, his or her physical appearance, and the foibles of minor characters who aren’t really central to the core narrative. But the most enduring writing features complex characters who undergo a thorough character arc, thus allowing readers and audiences to emotionally invest in them.
  • Do I fall back on archetypes? Writers who are just starting out may research general topics—like the “hero’s journey” or the 12 main character archetypes—and then immediately start writing. But the character profile of strong, memorable protagonists, antagonists, and supporting characters must go deeper. And when you’re writing about real life individuals, merely reducing them to archetypes could anger your subjects. Even when Gladwell introduces archetypes in books like The Tipping Point and Blink, he takes care to humanize his subjects and not just reduce them to cookie-cutter descriptions.

How to Apply Malcolm Gladwell’s Advice About Characters to Your Own Writing

Try these techniques to apply Gladwell’s techniques to your own work.

  • Practice your scene-setting and world-building skills. Go to the bedroom of someone you know and write a quick profile of that person using only what you see in their bedroom. How well can you summon this person for a reader just by describing this most intimate space? When you’re finished, show it to the person. Did you capture them? What did you miss? What did you get that surprised them?
  • Observe Gladwell’s technique for yourself. Read “Blowing Up,” Gladwell’s story about the investor Nassim Taleb, which was published in The New Yorker in April 2002. Pay attention to his method of painting a picture of the subject without looking directly at them. Are any descriptions particularly vivid?
  • Delve even further into Gladwell’s technique. Read “True Colors,” published in The New Yorker in March 1999. Note how Gladwell juxtaposes a setting against the personality of Herta Herzog. Can you think of similar contrasts between person and setting within your own world? If so, maybe you’ve just found something compelling to write about.

Ready to write? Learn how Malcolm Gladwell structures narratives here.