For writers — how to make Pithy characters

We know more about minor characters in Dickens than we do about the major characters of many other authors1. McCawber, Heap, Mrs Joe, Magwitch in the graveyard, Captain Cuttle, the list goes on.

If you’re not a fan of Dickens, think how Shakespeare invests even walk-on parts — like the porter in Macbeth — with more life than you get in a soap opera mainstay.

If you trawl the internet (and, heavens, chances are you came on this page by doing that very thing), you’ll find huge numbers of character checklists to fill in, alongside random character generators.

Here’s one I made earlier: Lily, Female, Age 10-11, Flirt/Heartthrob, Motivated, Mature, Leader, Is about to experience a “first”, hair red, eye colour gold (seriously, gold?), body type athletic.

Now, do you see Lily? If you do, you’re probably thinking of Alyson Hannigan as ‘Lily’ in ‘How I met your mother’ (I am so waiting for the episode when she almost destroys the world, as she did at the end of series 6 of Buffy). If you’re relying on the randomly generated description, you’re probably not seeing anything.

The truth is you can fill in as many forms with eye colour, hair colour, build, distinguishing facial characteristics, and so on, and you will never get any closer to a character than if you picked up a police identikit picture, which will have essentially been compiled in the same way.

In discussing characters, it’s convenient to talk about their traits. That’s how we can compare and contrast Elizabeth Bennett with Viola in Twelfth Night. Traits, though, are death to the author — and to the actor. Traits generalise, while authors need to individualise.

Captain Cuttle may be a type of the wise mentor, but there his similarities with Obi Wan Kenobi end.2.

What writers need is something analogous to the Stanislavsky method. I read An Actor Prepares and Building a Character when I was a student. It didn’t occur to me until recently how much the Method can be applied to building a character in literature.

For those who haven’t read the books, Stanislavsky is all about building up a character from specifics — from a particular object, or a way of walking, or a habit. Method acting is chiefly known (to non-actors) these days in the sense that the actor adopts the character and lives that way, thereby bringing a much greater realism and intensity to the part. Actors may be able to do this to some extent — though playing the murderous flesh eating robot in space may prove difficult — but authors juggling twenty characters really don’t have that luxury.

However, even for minor characters, the individualising details can work very well indeed. So, here I unveil the PITH method, aimed at getting you to the pith of pithy characters (you see what I’m doing there, right… right?). Pith is Phrase — Thing — Habit, with Intention shuffled between them, as if it doesn’t quite belong. I’ll explain that in a moment. PITH goes like this: To construct a memorable, interesting and individual character, you just need three things.

  1. A characteristic phrase
  2. A favourite thing (in the sense of an object)
  3. A habit

Main characters can repeat their characteristic phrases ad nauseam, but walk-on parts don’t get many opportunities. However, a walk-on character who says the same phrase twice, both times when it isn’t quite appropriate, has probably got your attention.

Captain Cuttle’s ‘Overhaul and learn by heart’ has stuck in my mind since the day I first read it in 1985, particularly because of its incongruity. TV personalities learned the power of a catch-phrase in establishing their personal brand decades ago.Incidental characters can do the same thing.

A favourite thing, like Percy’s Prefect’s Badge in Harry Potter, is much more of a window on the soul than eyes ever are. Catch a train somewhere and you see the favourite things immediately. A woman keeps checking that her handbag is with her — look more carefully and you see that it is almost new, and doesn’t quite match her outfit. A young man has two mobile phones, and keeps checking both. Another woman keeps checking her shoes to make sure they aren’t scuffed. Someone else is filing their nails. The other day I saw someone apply a complete set of make-up from a tiny bag.

The favourite thing sticks out most when it is incongruous — just like the favoured phrase. It doesn’t have to be portable, it just has to be something the person can’t bear to be parted from for long. Someone who keeps playing with their car keys is thinking of their car, someone who gets out Horse and Hound and reads it from cover to cover is thinking of their horse. And so on.

We all have habits. Some of us scratch our noses, others our elbows. Some like to rub their bruises or aches. Some stroke their chins, others stroke their stomachs. More revealingly, some stroke their stomachs and quickly draw their hands away the moment they realise they are doing it.

Much of the incidental characterisation in the Sherlock Holmes stories is based on Holmes inferring a lifestyle from a habit, and even inferring a habit from the condition of a particular item. So, that’s PTH, without the I yet, but we’re getting there. Let’s go back to a dull, trait generated character.

Bland character Ted Smith, 2-dimensional support character to the main character Bill Jones. He is six feet tall, generous, likes dogs and enjoys jokes.

We could add more traits and physical descriptions to Ted, but he isn’t going to get any better. He has blonde hair and blue eyes. We might get a little further if we gave him blonde eyes and blue hair, but not a great deal. So let’s PTH him a bit:

Phrase: “That’s the way I like ’em.” Not an especially original phrase, but Ted insists on using it when it’s least appropriate. Thing: Ted has a pocket watch that belonged to his grandfather. Whenever he has something important to do, he takes the watch along with him and keeps on checking it, even though it doesn’t work. Habit: Strokes his stomach, and then quickly puts his hand away when he realises he’s doing it.

Has Ted suddenly come a little bit more alive for you? If you can see Ted stroking his stomach, checking the useless watch and saying “That’s the way I like ’em” to the waitress who brings him a disgusting cup of over-boiled coffee, then you have the character firmly in your mind. So, what about I? I is for Intention.

I’m treating Intention separately because it’s not really part of the character at all, but is the link between the character and the plot. Ted has a broad spectrum of potential intentions. He likes it when people laughs at his jokes, he likes to get places on time, he likes it when everyone is agreeing with each other, he likes it when the pretty waitress smiles at him, he likes it when his mum makes him pancakes. Most of these will fit into Maslow’s hierarchy of need. In other words, their common to almost everyone, and therefore uninteresting for making him an individual character.
In any particular story, though, Ted’s intention is crucial, and it depends on the function he has in the plot.
In a thriller, bland Ted, everyone’s best friend, with his endearing stomach habit and that watch that never worked, suddenly pulls out a gun the moment hero Bill is about to solve the problem and save the day. “Why?” says Bill. “I got fed up with always coming second, always getting what you left.” “Isn’t that they way you like ’em?” says Bill. “Strangely,” says Ted, “no.”
In a romance, bland Ted, who all the girls treat like their big brother, plucks up the courage to lift Melissa up into the air and kiss her.
In a Western, Ted unexpectedly shows up for the gunfight.
Same character, different function, and therefore different intention. To tie the character to the plot — unless they are totally incidental — they need to do something, and behind that there has to be an intention, and behind that there has to be an underlying desire or motivation. It might very well be quite a different motivation from the one they had in a previous story, or at an earlier point in the same story.
So, there you have it. PITH. Easy to remember. As your characters will be…

Show 2 footnotes

  1. I didn’t think of this — it was mentioned to me in a tutorial once, but I can’t remember who came up with the idea
  2. In fact, Alec Guinness did not invest much in the role of Obi Wan Kenobi, and was for ever mortified that it was his most famous role. His Obi Wan in 1977 was eerily similar to the much more developed portrayal he gave to George Smiley two years later in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Back to Top