Arts & Entertainment, Writing

Characters: Descriptions

Malcolm Gladwell

Lesson time 9:48 min

Malcolm breaks down two pieces of his own writing—one written for The New Yorker and one for a medical journal—to illustrate how he brings a new character to life.

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Topics include: Summon a Character’s Spirit • Use Other People to Describe a Character • Establish Character Quickly


I often think of this profile that I did of an investor named Nassim Taleb because when I met him, I found him delightful. And I-- not delightful in a kind of, he's a fun guy to hang out with, but I thought he had a kind of magnificence of spirit that was wholly unusual, that I hadn't really uncovered in anyone. I didn't particularly agree with everything he said. Many things he said, I found weird-- sometimes even offensive. But it didn't matter. He had-- there was just something about him that was magnificent. Like I said, that's the right word. And so when I described him, what I wanted to do was describe him in such-- the task was to describe him in such a way that you got a glimpse of that. You couldn't get all of it because you have to meet him to get all of it. But you can get some of it. And so I-- I had to kind of just-- I had to summon him for the reader, not just in a literal way, but in a way that captured his spirit. And I've-- so let me just read to you from my description of him. And hopefully that comes through. "One recent spring morning, the staff of Empirica--" which is the name for Nassim's trading firm-- "were concerned with solving a thorny problem having to do with the square root of n-- where n is a given number of random set of observations-- and what relation n might have to a speculator's confidence in his estimations." Keep in mind, these guys are supposed to be trading stocks. And instead they're having an argument about, essentially, algebra. "Taleb was up at a whiteboard by the door, his marker squeaking furiously as he scribbled possible solutions. Spitznagel and Pallop--" these are his two employees-- "looked on intently. Spitznagel is blond and from the Midwest and does yoga. In contrast to Taleb, he exudes a certain laconic level-headedness. In a bar, Taleb would pick a fight. Spitznagel would break it up. Pallop is of Thai extraction and is doing a PhD in financial mathematics at Princeton. He has longish black hair and a slightly quizzical air. 'Pallop is very lazy,' Taleb will remark, to no one in particular, several times over the course of the day, although this is said with such affection that it suggests that 'laziness,' in the Talebian nomenclature, is a synonym for genius. It's-- it's-- that's the moment-- that's the-- that's the moment where I'm trying to communicate to you just how wonderfully and spectacularly weird he is and the delightful fact that he would call one of his employees, over and over again, to the world, "lazy," and it's actually a compliment. Once you kind of grasp that fact about Nassim Taleb, I think you understand who Nassim Taleb is. [MUSIC PLAYING] You can use two descriptions. There's very little complicated about it. And so for example, when I describe Spitznagel, I say, "Spitznagel is blond and from the Midwest and does yoga." That is the most cliched, right. I have summoned three cliches-- he's blond, so you think, oh, he's like, not that smar...

About the Instructor

Ketchup. Crime. Quarterbacks. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s books, these ordinary subjects have helped millions of readers grasp complex ideas like behavioral economics and performance prediction. Now, the renowned storyteller and best-selling author of Blink and The Tipping Point is teaching his first online writing class. Craft stories that captivate by learning how Malcolm researches topics, crafts characters, and distills big ideas into simple, powerful narratives.

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Malcolm Gladwell

In 24 lessons, the author of Blink and The Tipping Point teaches you how to find, research, and write stories that capture big ideas.

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