On Writing: Big D.A.T.A. Techniques for Creating Characters on the Page

Photo: © Stefan Hengst. All rights reserved.

Now we know how powerful and dangerous big data can be. The data of us, those little bits of information we leave in our daily digital wake, when pulled, as if gravitationally, and gathered like matter inside a binary star, this big data can produce a force just slightly less powerful than a hypernova, able to change—change utterly—human lives and human history. Powerful and dangerous, to be sure, if fallen into the wrong hands; but quite useful if those hands happen to belong to a fiction writer.

Big data began with the shift from demographic research to psychographic research. Not only was it a move from the general to the specific, but, more vitally, from externalities to interiorities. The analogy to fiction writing is worth considering. Literature has always been on a trajectory inward, from chorus to character, from epic hero to modern little man, from Ulysses to Ulysses.

Yet throughout that long, historical inward turn, the heart of all great literature remains character. And the writer’s job is to make up characters that are convincing to a reader. (Notice the relative pronoun ‘that,’ not ‘who.’ I’ll say more ahead.)

As writers of prose fiction, our job is to create convincing characters and invent for them dramatic situations with uncertain outcomes that will force those characters to act in ways that are not only new to them, but true to them (cf., Aristotle’s ‘consistent inconsistencies’), actions which bring about a change that offers a deeper awareness of self, and offers that awareness to both the character and the reader. If pulled off well, the reader experiences a kind of bicameral response, by which the revelation of the character on the page creates a revelation in the mind of the reader turning that page, a psychological expansion that Aristotle referred to as psychagogia.

What is a character in prose fiction?


By that terse response I am hardly making the trite argument that all writing is just marks on the page. Instead I’m referring reverentially to the one and only actual tool of our craft—words. While it’s true that much can be (and has been) said about character in fiction (‘flat/round,’ ‘active/passive’, ‘good/bad,’ ‘likable/detestable,’ ‘story dictator/galley slave’, etc.), the focus of this short craft essay will not, in fact, be how to define them, nor how to ‘bring them to life’ and ‘make them live and breathe,’ but rather on how to language them psychographically into the reader’s imagination. (In that sense then, a character, for the purposes of this essay, is more of a ‘that’, than a ‘who’.) What type of analytics does a reader need to determine for herself whether a character is round or flat, good or bad, active or passive? To answer this question, I need to invoke one more set of binaries . . .

Showing vs. Telling

How characters are rendered in fiction comes down to these two primary techniques: either telling us who a character is or showing us. Of course, well-made fiction will always be an artful balance of both techniques, every textual instance of which as impossible to teach as alchemy. But we can describe and study and imitate and perhaps one day master those techniques, until we too might make mere words, as Donne put it, expand like gold to airy thinness beat.

So let me bring us back from metaphysical conceits to surveillance capitalism. For while it’s true fiction writers need data to render our characters well on the page, what we really need is D.A.T.A. 

Four Techniques for Showing Character:

Although not only entire essays but entire books could be devoted to each of the following subheadings, I will discuss briefly each letter of the acronym D.A.T.A.

D is for Dialogue

Dialogue, Stephen King writes in his craft memoir On Writing, “gives your cast of characters their voices, and is crucial in defining their characters—only what people do tells us more about what they’re like.” Certainly, a detailed discussion of dialogue would take in point of view, to consider the narratorial source of the dialogue’s transmission. Yet, I would argue that in each case the technical deployment in language would look the same. Dialogue will be rendered in one of three ways: direct, indirect, and summarized. Consider the following example:

They got the news late that spring, the doctor closing her office door before she carefully (and gently, it seemed to Martha) explained the test results, referring to print-outs in manila file folders and to charts and diagrams on a computer screen, repeating certain phrases (“just a prediction, not a promise”), almost an entire hour passing before either she or Henry spoke, Martha recalling later how dry her damn throat was when she finally did try to speak, rambling on and on about how grateful she and Henry were, how much they appreciated the doctor’s care and attentiveness, how their biggest, biggest concern, if they were being truly honest, was the baby’s quality of life, how she’d manage in the world, especially after she and Henry were gone. It seemed forever before she finally got around to the question she had been ready to ask 45 minutes ago.

“Doctor,” Martha said, clearing her dry throat, “Do you think it would be right for us to bring this baby into the world, given what you have just told us?”

“I understand your question, but I can’t answer that for you,” she said. “I can tell you only what this test predicts.” She closed the file and folded her hands atop it. “I’m sorry I don’t have better news.”

The first sentence summarizes the doctor’s dialogue (‘explained’, ‘referring’, ‘repeating’). Nothing is given directly or even indirectly, with the exception of the parenthetical snippet of direct dialogue: (“just a prediction, not a promise”), which is used to enliven the summary. When we are told ‘almost an hour passed,’ we pivot to Martha’s point of view with summarized dialogue (‘recalling’, ‘try to speak’) that slowly begins to blend with indirect dialogue (‘damn throat’, ‘rambling’). Next we get a series of four clauses, all beginning with ‘how,’ that are examples of indirect dialogue, wherein we are not given directly quoted speech but we do nonetheless hear the voice of the characters blending in with the voice of the narrator. We end the paragraph with the set up for the direct dialogue, offered in the conventional manner with the lines inside quotations marks and punctuated as stand-alone paragraphs. Here is the first paragraph again with each of these occasions of summarized dialogue in blue, and indirect dialogue in orange:

They got the news late that spring, the doctor closing her office door before she carefully (and gently, it seemed to Martha) explained the test results, referring to print-outs in manila file folders and to charts and diagrams on a computer screen, repeating certain phrases (“just a prediction, not a promise”), almost an entire hour passing before either she or Henry spoke, Martha recalling later how dry her damn throat was when she finally did try to speak, rambling on and on about how grateful she and Henry were, how much they appreciated the doctor’s care and attentiveness, how their biggest, biggest concern, if they were being truly honest, was the baby’s quality of life, how she’d manage in the world, especially after she and Henry were gone. It seemed forever before she finally got around to the question she had been ready to ask 45 minutes ago.

The choices between these methods are impossible to teach because they are based entirely on the needs of the story and on the writer’s own intuition of how to solve the problem of dramatizing those needs. Artistic instinct cannot be taught. Another writer might have felt the real drama existed in the blow-by-blow revelation of the test results, giving the doctor’s dialogue in full direct transcription, while pacing the reveals of those test results in order to heighten the suspense and allow the couple’s terror and confusion to slowly build.

Although each solution to these dramatic problems is as individual as the artist grappling with them, the craft techniques employed should be as apparent to the writer as the backstage of a theater is to the actor, all the pulleys and winches and light gels and backless set construction visible to the actors but not the audience; so too should these techniques be to the writer and the reader, respectively.

A is for Action

Let’s go back to Stephen King’s comment “only what people do tells us more about what they’re like.” By ‘action’ I don’t mean only explosions and battles and asteroids crashing into dinosaurs who are chasing humans who are chasing zombies, nor do I mean only quotidian actions such as brushing our teeth or combing our hair or making breakfast or driving to work or any of the myriad meaningless routines we go through everyday. By ‘action’ I mean story action, those dramatic events that move a story forward and that happen to and are caused by the people in our story. Let me explain by offering again three types of action that we’ll call the three Rs: routine, reception, and response. Consider the following example:

Sid closed and locked his mailbox, put the mail into the front pocket of his leather briefcase, slung his wool overcoat across his arm, and walked through the bright lobby toward the elevator. He pushed the call button, loosened his tie, and pulled out his phone, scrolling through the closing prices while he waited. When the doors finally wheezed opened, Sid stepped into the empty elevator and fished through his pocket for his apartment keys. His entry door opened into his dining room at the other end of which was his living room, the dark piano gleaming in the light from the Chrysler Building outside the windows whose blinds he’d left up since this morning. He flipped on the lights, set down his briefcase, and took off his suit coat, hanging it on the back of a chair. In the kitchen, he put water on to boil for the pasta he was going to make, went into his bedroom, changed into his gym shorts and his old Yale t-shirt, grabbed his briefcase, and went to the couch, sitting back with his feet up on the coffee table. He took out his mail, putting The New Yorker and Economist on the table and flipped through the cluster of different sized envelopes, tossing some to the side of the couch and some to the table, until he noticed it. The green envelope with the sparkly-purple-inked handwriting. He stopped and sat up. He held the envelope to his nose, inspected it closely, then sent it like a Frisbee toward the trashcan in the corner. He missed but let it stay on the floor, leaning against a table leg. He sat back again. Took out his phone, then put it back. Then he picked up The New Yorker, flipped to the table of contents and then dropped it back on the table. He looked over at the envelope. He ran his hands through his hair, blew a sigh out his mouth and got up and retrieved the green envelope. He dropped it into the small trash basket and sat down on dining room chair. He looked out the window, and sighed again, shaking his head. He picked the envelope out of the basket, ran a finger under its seal and opened it. The letter was a few pages thick, and he read it once quickly, pausing on the last page. He got up, crossed the room, grabbed his cell phone, touched the screen and waited.

All at once he shouted into the phone, “I’m not going to be there. Okay? So don’t expect me. Don’t expect me and don’t write me and don’t ever use that stationary again. Throw it out, in fact. I never told you when we put it on our registry, but I hate that color.”

Much of the paragraph is made up of Sid’s routine movements: coming home from work, checking his mail, taking his elevator, turning on lights, changing his clothes, making his dinner, opening his mail. This routine does a lot—it establishes the type of character Sid is, his habits, his behavior, his economic class, his personal style, where he lives, how he lives. It’s clear he’s alone, and the window blinds still being up lets us know he works long days. We watch him make his own dinner instead of schlepping a greasy pizza take-out box up the elevator. He loosens his tie once inside his building, not before. If he had burped or passed gas or picked his nose once in the elevator he would be a different character; and by the juxtaposition of those seemingly incongruous bits of D.A.T.A.—his posh appearance and his slovenly actions—we would learn more information about his character by watching this man in an expensive suit go through his daily routine both in public and when he thinks no one’s watching him. But thanks to the writer we are watching him. We’re having it all shown to us, not told.

It’s not until he notices the green envelope that we shift modes. This is a literal example of reception; he indeed receives something (but it could be anything, a phone call, a knock at the door, he might have bumped into someone coming of the elevator, or like Rocky Balboa, been asked to fight the champ) that disrupts his expected routine. It presents an obstacle to his desire to relax at home after a long day at work and have dinner. The reception often comes by chance, as a surprise, functioning like Joseph Campbell’s ‘call to action’. The character is confronted with new information that forces him or her to act, to respond. Notice that Sid’s response is actually to refuse the call to action. But that doesn’t matter. What matters for the story is that he acts. (Even tossing the envelope in the trash was a response, but the writer decided to take him further and reveal even more of his feelings and his backstory.) Whoever the letter-writer is and whatever that person wants is still a mystery. Maybe, if we are curious we’ll read on to find out more. But at this point, we understand that Sid’s dinner and his piano and his gym shorts aren’t the real story question. The story question is what is going on between Sid and the person who wrote that letter. We started the story with some exposition (routine); we added an inciting incident as development (reception) and then we started the clock of the story with action (response).

T is for Thought

Let’s stay with Sid for a moment. We see the appearance of his clothes and his apartment, we watch him move and act, we listen to him speak, but we get none of his thoughts. Why might the writer have chosen to leave out this bit of D.A.T.A.? Again, that answer would depend on the needs of the story. But one reason might have been that knowing what Sid is thinking would drastically reduce the mystery and suspense of this opening. While there are no dinosaurs trying to eat anyone, there is a great deal of suspense in the scene. And suspense is one of the true pleasures of a good story. What will happen next?

As with dialogue, any full analysis of a character’s thoughts would have to include a discussion of point of view, but for the scope of this essay, I’ll return to big data and psychographics. Literature offers us, uniquely among other art forms, an experience of knowing what someone is thinking. This isn’t appealing simply because we wish we could have such a super power in our everyday life; rather its pleasure goes back to my earlier point about Aristotle’s theory of psychagogia. Hearing how someone thinks and feels allows us to think and feel along with that character; it allows us an entry point to project our own humanity onto that character and into that story. We understand ourselves better as a result. And this experience is the central pleasure of fiction—the pleasure of our own psychological expansion. As Holmes put it: Our minds, once expanded by a new idea, never regain their original dimensions. We are forever enlarged.

A is for Appearance

You never get a second chance for a first impression was something a teacher told our public speaking class. However, we know that in reality we often meet people who don’t turn out to be anything like what they first seemed. In art this happens often. When done well it’s Jay Gatsby, Norman Bates, Queequeg. When done poorly it’s an unearned twist or a cliché; it’s the prostitute with the heart of gold, it’s Pretty Woman. Let’s go back to Sid. Had he burped or passed another form of gas when no one was looking, or had he come into his apartment, stripped down to his underwear right there, turned on the TV, and assaulted a pepperoni pizza from Domino’s, using his couch cushion for a napkin, he’d be something of a contradiction, a judgment based solely on appearance, on first impressions, on the contrast between what he looks like and how he acts.

Two American masters of the short story, Joyce Carol Oates and Charles Baxter, have used this method of clashing impressions in their fiction to both characterize and move the plot forward. In “Where You Going, Where Have You Been?” Oates’s Arnold Friend looks at first glance like a cute teenage boy, but throughout the story he moves and speaks and finally acts like an adult, a very dangerous adult. So too in Baxter’s “Gryphon,” in which an adult, Miss Ferenczi, who at first glance looks curiously like both a young girl and an older person, is our young narrator’s substitute teacher. She comes into the classroom on her first day “carrying a purple purse, a checkerboard lunchbox . . . her face had two prominent lines, descending vertically from the sides of her mouth to her chin . . . [She] pulled her hair down and twisted it into pigtails, with red rubber bands holding them tight one inch from the ends.” As with Arnold Friend, first impressions can be deceiving; Miss Ferenczi will also transform throughout the course of the story into a potentially dangerous adult. But like the method we used for Sid, neither Oates nor Baxter ever let us know the thoughts of Friend or Ferenczi. We learn about them only through appearance, dialogue, and action. Not a complete D.A.T.A. set, it’s true; but the choice to deny us access to the thoughts of these two characters, to never let us know what they’re thinking, is part of what makes these stories the masterpieces they are.

These then are the four ways to show a character in fiction, using Big D.A.T.A. And unless we in fact do consider a character a real person, a who and not a that, then we can all rest assured no one’s privacy was the least bit compromised.


by Joseph Salvatore


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Joseph Salvatore is the author of the story collection To Assume A Pleasing Shape (BOA Editions), and the co-author of the college textbook Understanding English Grammar (Pearson). A Spanish translation of his story collection, Presentarse En Forma Grata, was published this February by Editorial Dos Bigotes. He is the Books Editor at The Brooklyn Rail and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Sunday Book Review. His fiction has appeared in, among other places, The Collagist, Dossier, Epiphany, New York Tyrant, Open City, Post Road, Salt Hill, Sleeping Fish, and Willow Springs. His criticism has appeared in, among other places, Rain Taxi; The Routledge International Encyclopedia of Queer Culture; Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of New Latin@ Writing; and The Believer Logger. He is an associate professor of writing and literature at The New School in New York City, where he was the founding editor of the literary journal LIT. He lives in Queens.

About the Artwork

The accompanying artwork is by contributor Stefan Hengst.

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