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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Malcolm Gladwell
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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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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...


Transform the ordinary

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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Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

This took me some time to get through, because I had to pause and reflect on some of the lessons that Malcolm gave and that was a great thing. He gave me pages of notes to think about and absorb and a good reading list to chase up! I think my writing will be subconsciously and consciously better for every little tidbit he gave so generously.

Mr. Gladwell's class is a fascinating look inside the writer, his process, and his work. THANK YOU -- I'll be watching and interacting with these lessons again very soon.

I haven‘t known the author before, but as arthistorian am interested in creative non fiction writing, and I found here deep insight and feel encouraged to go on, where I was stucked . This was also fun to watch and I think I could transfer many ideas of Malcom Gladwells course into my piece of work , which doing I now understand better. Thanks a lot for sharing experience !

Amazing course & instructor! Amazing platform. Love this - please keep doing what you're doing.


Comments

Ekin Ö.

I find it interesting to compare two distinct characters to show one's strong sides. It's all about the perspective. After all, you don't know how good an individual is if you don't see the bad in the same picture. It also very much makes sense to me to establish the character as soon as possible, because then, you'd be able to go through the story from the character's eyes as well.

Joshua S.

"He's staring out the window and his boss thinks it's fantastic!" I wish my bosses and teachers were like that... paid to daydream... I would be great at that.

Albert B.

On the first page of Blowing Up, Mr. Gladwell demonstrates how and when it can be appropriate to break the rules. He writes, "Taleb knew how heretical that thought was. Wall Street was dedicated to the principle that skill and insight mattered in investing just as they did in surgery and golf and flying fighter jets." The rules say there should be one 'and' in that last clause, not two. But conversationally, as a storyteller, a person speaking rather than writing this would probably use two ands. I did the same trick when I fragmented the foregoing sentence with "but conversationally." If you did this constantly it could get annoying, but used as that second 'and' is, it draws in the reader by being more familiar and intimate. One hopes for an enlightened editor who will not tread all over this.

Laura K.

Last month, I interviewed an orthodox rabbi. He was charming and endearing, in the nutty professor sort of way. One minute, he postulated about the significance of a Hebraic root word and the next he fidgeted with a yarmulke that kept slipping defiantly off his bald spot. He weaved a complex analysis of the political climates in the middle east and then complimented my understanding of Hanukkah (which is so limited I had to google the spelling to make sure I was handling it correctly in this sentence). He was both brilliant and disarming. Each time I try to write about the interview, I imagine him reading my article. Would he embarrassed if I mention the runaway yarmulke and wrinkled linen suit, even if I was charmed by them? How would he react to my depictions of his cluttered office and rambling monologues? In today's lesson, Mr. Gladwell explains portraying Spitznagel as the "blonde (dumb), midwestern (boring), yoga (airy millenial)" so that he serves as a contrasting backdrop for Taleb, but later mentions that he actually found Spitznagel enjoyable and intelligent. So the question I have is this: what is my responsibility to my interviewee? Can I take artistic license with their description if it serves a larger literary purpose? Can I risk offending him if it best represents my impressions? What does it mean to honor both the integrity of the story and the dignity of the subject? ...or maybe ethical pontificating is just what you do when you have a bad case of writer's block...

Laurie O.

I was captivated by the character description involving an imaginary scene in a bar. One man would start a fight and the other would intervene to stop it. Brilliant. I replayed it to just to drink in the imagery. In the historical novel I'm writing, I've focused far too much on what a person looks like and not enough on their spirit. Thanks!

Mia S.

"Writing with my friend for this medical journal, the story of an interview I conducted 25 years ago with a biologist, he had won the Nobel Prize for his work on what's called reverse transcriptase. In two paragraphs, I tell you, 'I met this guy, but he wasn't the typical scientist.' Second or third sentence is, 'He was raised by activist parents in Philadelphia. His bar mitzvah money was given to a refugee camp. When he gave the valedictory address at his high school, he spoke about the hydrogen bomb.' You have scientist, Nobel Prize winner - you have a notion of what he is, he's the nerd, buried himself in the lab, so smart we can't understand him - but then we're like, 'Wait, his parents are activists.' We can locate him, all of a sudden - he's Jewish, maybe he's political, we have a sense of where he places himself in sociological firmament. Then, a kind of selflessness - he's 13, gives his money away. Then we have, valedictorian - brilliance at an early age. But what does he talk about? He talks about the fact that the world could get blown up. Then, the last line of the first paragraph is, 'During our conversation, he didn't talk about science - he talked about philosophy and literature.' So I go to visit a man who has won the highest prize that can be given to a scientist, and he doesn't talk about science. And that's the whole point. The whole point of this little thing that we're writing together is to talk about, 'What is the benefit to a scientist of learning something outside of science? Are you a better scientist if you know stuff that has nothing to do with science?' And my argument I make was that it was Temin's reading in literature and philosophy that allowed him to make this radical jump that resulted in his Nobel Prize - that's my argument, anyway, that the habit of mind that led to his scientific discovery was a literary habit of mind. Temin, with his crazy hair and his dancing eyes, is just a really quick way to get to it. I want you - boom, in that frame of mind of, 'Oh, this brilliant scientist gave his bar mitzvah money away. What did that mean?' I get you there by sentence three."

Mia S.

"You can use two descriptions: there's very little complicated about it. When I describe for Spitznagel, that is the most cliched - I've summoned three cliches: he's blond, so you think, 'he's not that smart'; he's from the Midwest, he's boring; he does yoga - he's some kind of dreamy millennial. In combination, you get a little somewhere, but I don't want to get complicated with Spitznagel 'cause I want you to stay focused on Nassim. His only function is to be a counterpart to Taleb and to remind you that part of Taleb's genius is that he's totally delighted to spend time with people who are about as different from himself as is humanly possible. Nassim is from Lebanon, he's out of his mind, and he's got this huge nose, he's like, waving his fingers in the air - and who's his best friend at work? It's this blond guy from the Midwest. Then I said, 'Taleb would pick a fight, Spitznagel would break it up.' You get a sense of - I was trying to reveal a little more of Spitznagel's personality in that imaginary moment, and you understand that they are at opposite ends of the continuum. Nassim loves that fact. And then lazy Pallop, who later on I describe how [he] doesn't even look at anybody, he turns his chair around so he's looking out the window and just sits there, reflecting - and they love that about him. He's paying Pallop a salary, and Pallop is staring out the window, and Nassim thinks it's fantastic. But all of those are very simple, concrete (some of them cliched) images, that if you stack them on top of each other, I think you get somewhere. You don't need to be Proust and do pages and pages of description, it can be done relatively efficient, in the way you describe people. 'Pallop's computer was untouched and he often turned his chair around so that he faced completely away from his desk.' He just sat there, and everybody found it enormously amusing."

Mia S.

"I often think of this profile that I did of an investor, because when I met him, I found him delightful - 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 - there was just something about him that was magnificent, that's the right word. When I described him, the task was to describe him in such a way that you got a glimpse of that. You couldn't get all of it - you have to meet him to get all of it. But you get some of it, and so I had to summon him for the reader, not just in a literal way, but in a way that captured his spirit: 'One recent spring morning, the staff of Empirica 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. 'Up at a whiteboard by the door, his marker squeaking furiously as he scribbled possible solutions.' 'Spitznagel and Pallop' - 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 levelheadedness. 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 'laziness' in the Talebian nomenclature is a synonym for 'genius.'' 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 it's actually a compliment. Once you grasp that fact about Taleb, you understand who Taleb is."

Gwendolyn D.

This class is so timely. My first interview is scheduled in three days. I have been writing questions to stay focus. Now I have additional knowledge while interviewing where this person may fit in my story.

Jeanetta C.

When I was a stringer for the Northwest Christian Examiner (when I used to live in Seattle) doing 2 interview-based articles each month, I always tried to interview on their home territory so I could get a sense of who they were as a person--beyond their ministry work, history, or event. Precious little of it could be related within the 750-word count limit for the newspaper, but it often helped me see into their personalities and motivations beyond what they said; meaning, it mostly helped me interpret their words correctly. I see now that I could have shared more of them as a person by taking space to relate a few key details.