From Malcolm Gladwell's MasterClass

Characters: World Building

If you could choose to describe a character by the way they look, or by what they keep in their bedroom, Malcolm says to choose the bedroom. Learn how to use the setting and action around a character to build their personality.

Topics include: Describe Your Character's World • Practice: Building a Character • Write About Someone Through Other People’s Eyes

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If you could choose to describe a character by the way they look, or by what they keep in their bedroom, Malcolm says to choose the bedroom. Learn how to use the setting and action around a character to build their personality.

Topics include: Describe Your Character's World • Practice: Building a Character • Write About Someone Through Other People’s Eyes

Malcolm Gladwell

Teaches Writing

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So I wanted to talk a little about establishing worlds that-- you know, there is as much value in describing the world someone inhabits, the physical space they inhabit, as the person himself. So a simple way of thinking about this is imagine if you were going to describe your sib-- one of your siblings to an audience, a general audience. And I give you a choice. You can either go into your sibling's room and describe the contents of his or her closet, bookshelf, the way the room looks, the posters on the wall, the what have you, or you can just describe your sibling as a person, what they look like, how they walk and talk. What's better? I actually kind of think that you get a better sense of your-- of someone by describing their bedroom, or at least the bedroom is just as good. If you went in-- you know, if you just walked through my apartment without me there and just made-- just described what you saw, you would have an-- you would have an incredibly effective portrait of me. I mean, you wouldn't know that I was skinny and had curly hair. But, actually, you kind of would, because you could see my clothes. But just by poking around my closet and looking at the books on-- and is my apartment messy or tidy? Is it-- how are things arranged? What's in the fridge? I mean, there's tons of things you could learn about me. Anyway, so I'm always a big-- I'm more-- I'm a-- I'm a bedroom person, not a-- not a personal description person. I'm a space person, not a person person. So this is an example of-- so this isn't a terribly good description, but it works in context. There's an article I wrote years ago about-- we were talking about the world of advertising in the 1960s, when advertising mattered. It sort of doesn't matter in the same way now, but back then it was a really, really big deal. People went into advertising, who today would go to Hollywood or Silicon Valley. I mean, it was the place that captured the best and the brightest. And there was a legendary ad firm that was called Tinker. And Tinker-- and I'm describing-- I'm talking about a woman named Herta Herzog who worked for Tinker. And Herta Herzog was essentially a Freudian analyst. And Tinker was this sort of-- it was the hippest advertising agency of the day. It was "Mad Men" on steroids. And they decided they needed to have a Freudian analyst on their staff. And so I'm-- we've met Herta Herzog, who's now in her 90s and lives in the Alps in Switzerland, that I somehow managed to con my editor to sending me to go and see Herta Herzog. And she was like very close to the end of her life. And she was actually in an oxygen tank the entire time, and it was this crazy thing. But I wanted to describe the heyday of her career when she worked for Tinker. So I begin the description with Herzog worked at a small advertising agency called Jack Tinker and Partners. And people who were in the business in those days speak of Tinker the way baseball fans talk about the 19...

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.

Reviews

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

As I embark on writing my first book, the Malcolm Gladwell MasterClass on writing is a valuable resourse that both informs and influences my writing. I plan to revisit it often, to dive deeper and apply the lessons it contains.

I thought it was great there were many nuggets of good advice in the videos which were useful for a new writer to take into consideration and play around with. There were a couple of concerns I have with a writing project which his videos do help to clarify.

Great insights. Practical tips. Malcom's humble spirit encourages and inspires.

I have learned that mainstream rule-based writing is not where professional writing creativity comes from, it comes from strategies and techniques applied to make writing even more intriguing. It also helped me to look at research and writing very differently. I think this course will improve my future writing and influence, thank you.

Comments

Ekin Ö.

Wow. The idea to frame the character with its surroundings is simple, but it blew my mind. Why? Because when reading about someone, you are still bound to the author's opinions. However, if you get a glimpse of the world they live in, then you have your observations instead of just the author. Brilliant!

Brett G.

I like the idea of describing someone via the world in which they live. And then as the story grows, surprising readers with traits of the person that didn't come out from the initial description because I have to believe everyone is a bit more mysterious and/or complex than their bedroom closet, right?

Stephen G.

Practice, practice and practice... I like the idea of writing about the character through the eyes of their friends and colleagues.

Laurie O.

I'm reading a book called Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress. In it, she also suggests describing characters through the eyes of others. I like the technique, and am trying it in rewrites of the novel I'm working on. Now that I've heard Mr. Gladwell discuss describing a character through their surroundings, I'm going to try that as well. Great lesson! (P.S. I just love listening to Mr. Gladwell talk about stories he has written and his experiences with subjects. He is so engaging! He obviously loves what he does!)

Mia S.

"It's useful sometimes to think of yourself if you're a writer the way an athlete thinks of themselves. Athletes practice; they spend way more time practicing than they do playing. Analogous to writing about someone's room instead of them is to write about someone entirely through the eyes of their friends and family. Deliberately never talk to the person you're profiling, but just talk to people around them - coworkers, friends, family, siblings, parents - anyone you can come up with who has a perspective on them, and try and summon them that way. Reflect on how different that profile turned out than if you had talked to the person themselves. Friends describe you very differently than you describe yourself. When you construct a profile entirely through the eyes of friends, you construct a different profile. You can sort of answer the question, 'Do you prefer this one to the one you'd construct by talking to the subject?' Sometimes you will. I actually much prefer constructing profiles from people within someone's circle; you get a way more telling portrait from friends than from the person themselves."

Mia S.

"'Legendary ad man Marian Harper, who came to believe that the agency he was running - McCann-Erickson - was too big and unwieldy to be able to consider things properly. His solution was to plucks handful of the very best and brightest from McCann and set them up in the suite directly below the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The Tinker Group rented the penthouse, complete with a huge terrace,double-height living room, a rotating exhibit of modern art hung by the partners for motivational purposes. With everything a bright dazzling white.' So like, you understand this is crazy, right? First of all, it tells you about the 60s. Today, they'd be in a warehouse with like, a ping pong table. Today the aesthetic of hip firms is to be kind of industrial and edgy. Back then, everything in white, penthouse overlooking MoMA - it just gives you a flavor of what was going on at that time. And the idea that in the middle of this crazy - the whole nine yards - is this woman; she's like a Viennese trained psychoanalyst, so the juxtaposition of Herta with her insane accent in the middle of this crazy penthouse painted white, that's what I want. I want you to see Herta in the space, that's what's kind of arresting about the image. 'She had enormous insights. Alka-Seltzer was a client of ours, and they were discussing new approaches for the next commercial. She said, You show a hand dropping an Alka-Seltzer tablet into a glass of water; why not show the hand dropping two? You'll double sales.' The fantastic thing is, it was the Freudian analyst who's like, 'Just drop it two and you'll sell twice as many tablets.' The whole thing is so bananas, that's just the payoff."

Mia S.

"Establishing worlds: there is as much value in describing the world someone inhabits - the physical space they inhabit - as the person themselves. So a simple way of thinking about this is, imagine if you were going to describe one of your siblings to a general audience. I give you a choice: you can either go into your sibling's room and describe the contents of his or her closet, bookshelf, the way the room looks, posters on the wall; or you can just describe your sibling as a person - what they look like, how they walk and talk. What's better? I think you get a better sense of someone by describing their bedroom, or at least the bedroom is just as good. If you just walked through my apartment without me there and just described what you say, you would have an incredibly effective portrait of me. You wouldn't know I was skinny and had curly hair. Is my apartment messy or tidy? How are things arranged? What's in the fridge? I'm a bedroom person, not a personal description person; a space person, not a person person. In the 1960s, when advertising mattered (back then it was a really big deal) people went into advertising who today would go to Hollywood or Silicon Valley - it was the place that captured the best and the brightest. There was a legendary ad firm called Tinker; Herta Herzog was essentially a Freudian analyst, and Tinker was the hippest agency of the day - 'Mad Men' on steroids. They decided they needed to have a Freudian analyst on staff. Now in her 90s and in the Alps in Switzerland, I somehow managed to con my editor to sending me to go and see Herzog; she was very close to the end of her life, in an oxygen tent the entire time. I wanted to describe the heyday of her career. I begin the description with, 'People who were in the business in those days speak of Tinker the way baseball fans talk about the 1927 Yankees.' Right away, you get a sense of, 'Oh, this was the place.'"

Emma B.

I enjoy this idea that a physical space may be more indicative or helpful in constructing the image of a person mostly because I am an archaeologist and this is what archaeologists do. It puts to bed the tedious and seemingly ever-resurrected question of whether or not archaeologists can create accurate interpretations and representations of past peoples. If we can provide meaningful, authentic portraits of people, today, then we can certainly extend that sort of analysis and description to the past. Physical environments are inherently meaningful in regard to people. I think it could also be useful for folks engaging in creative writing, in the creation of likeable, realistic, relatable characters. I could see it being useful for creating a real person rather than cardboard Mary Sues or other snoozably generic protagonists. This person you are creating occupies their world and who they are will be represented in the spaces they most frequently inhabit. By imagining that place, the author is forced to think about how and why the person is occupying their space in the ways that they do. There must be an underlying reason for it to exist at all. If something is dusty, why? If the table is shoved in a corner? Are the chairs mismatched? Is it colorful? Walls or appliances? WHY? Is it normal, aberrant, is the character comfortable? It forces the author to think of their character as more than a physical description and hopefully-admirable (or perhaps not) set of attributes. And it allows the character to be more than what they say to other characters, what they think to themselves, or a compilation of action. In a sense, it adds a dimension of someone who is struggling with expression and thought, while laying out a physical map of their past and present activities and maybe aspirations. Some of which the character may not be entirely aware. (Good technique for feminist writing, I think. Good writing, just generally, and potentially effective for struggles with Mary Sues or "strong female leads.")

Vanaja

Awesome. I loved the way Malcolm described the penthouse and how he is a space person and not a person person.

Gwendolyn D.

Again another delightful class! Building a charactor by her bedroom and descriptions from the inner cirlce of friends is awesome. Years ago when starting a new job, the editor for their monthly newsletter wrote an article about who I was - the new hire. For the material for the article, the editor spoke to friends from my previous job. I was stun of what people preceived me to be and my assessment of myself. Their preception was of a higher-caliber - intellect, than I thought they had of me. That said, they were right on-point.