Writing, Arts & Entertainment

Characters: World Building

Malcolm Gladwell

Lesson time 10:09 min

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.

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


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...

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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