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How to Write: Giving Your Writing Personality


There exists a common mistake among many writers, new and old alike, to write without personality.

How does this impact you negatively?

The problem is that so many writers write without personality, it's hard to distinguish one writer from the next. You get lost in the shuffle because your work reads like 99% of the work already out there.

Want to stand out? You're going to have to give your writing personality. That way, while everyone else is chopping away at their next McBook, you're giving the readers something they can sink their teeth into -- which is what they want, and what they'll keep paying you to do.

Let's get rolling.

Defining Personality

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

-From The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

One sentence.

Look at how much personality one simple sentence conveys.

The above line is the opening sentence from the 1951 classic novel The Catcher in the Rye. In all likelihood, you read it in High School.

Defining personality is hard, and defining writing that has no personality is even harder. Personality is one of those things where you recognize it when you see it, but you don't necessarily notice it when it's gone. It's also one of those things where you have to be deliberate -- you have to be intentionally adding personality to your work. Otherwise, you're just writing words.

So returning again to the above example, and assuming you've read the book (if you haven't, what are you waiting for), think about this sentence as it relates to the overall plot. It serves no purpose. It doesn't even set the plot in motion. Holden himself even negates the line at the end with the 'I don't feel like going into it' bit. This line does nothing to propel the plot forward.

And yet it is crucial to the book because it immediately establishes a sense of Holden Caulfield's personality. In one sentence we're given a glimpse of Caulfield -- he strikes us as cynical and nihilistic.

We also establish a sense of intimacy with Holden. We feel as though we're sitting in the same room with him and he's telling us a story. We get the impression that he's not happy to be telling us the story, but at the same time, we get the impression that he secretly loves the attention.

The first sentence stands out because it contains the character's worldview. In other words, it's almost 100% personality.

Let's imagine an experiment where take the opening line from Catcher in the Rye. Let's assume that you've read Catcher in the Rye, but you've forgotten the opening line. Now let's take the opening lines from, say, A Tale of Two Cities and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. We'd have something like this:

1. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

2. "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

3. "Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world."

You can recognize the opening lines of Catcher in the Rye by personality alone. Holden Caulfield simply stands out as being Holden Caulfield.

We're not saying that Moby Dick or Tale of Two Cities lack personality. Notice how all three have personality. Tale of Two Cities establishes a sort of detached, contradictory personality and Moby Dick has a sort of brief, observational personality.

The point being, Catcher in the Rye has personality, as does Moby Dick and Tale of Two Cities.

What we often see in writers is a lack of the tone and humanization that makes the writing come to life. Imagine if the opening lines to Catcher in the Rye looked like this:

"The autumn sky was cold, somber, and gray over the peaks of Pencey Prep."

Is it a decent piece of writing? Sure. Is it as powerful? Not by a long shot. Why? There's no personality. We've jumped straight into the action. We have cake without the icing. An ice cream sundae without the whipped cream and sprinkles.

And yet all too often writers jump right into the action, with little regard for the personalities of their characters (and by proxy, the personality of their story).

The lens is like the kaleidoscope through which your characters see the world -- every kaleidoscope is different.

The lens is like the kaleidoscope through which your characters see the world -- every kaleidoscope is different.

The Lens

We are born into our bodies and see them through the same eyes our entire lives. We formulate opinions about the world using the same brain. For these reasons, we often forget that other people see things differently than we do.

Forgetfulness that we are one of many is how writing without personality happens. We think of objects and events, but we forget that WHAT is happening is less important than HOW one sees it.

How do other people see things differently than we do?

Let's try a simple experiment. Imagine a chair. It's a simple wooden chair. Solid. Brown.

You've spent all day walking. Your legs are tired. You're exhausted. You want nothing more than to sit down. You walk into a room and see the chair. The chair is a sight for sore eyes. All you can think about is sitting in that chair.

Now let's think about your friend. Your friend wishes to hang a picture. It's a valued picture, so your friend wishes to hang it somewhere high, where nobody will be able to knock it down accidentally. Your friend is short. Walking into the same room, your friend sees the chair and recognizes it as a means to hang their picture as desired.

Here we see two different personalities giving a simple chair two unique characteristics.

In the first example, a chair is an object in which to sit.

In the second example, a chair is an object on which to stand.

Same chair.

The difference is the personalities viewing them.

This example is simple, so let's go into some more advanced examples.

Even a simple object can been seen different ways by different people.

Even a simple object can been seen different ways by different people.

The Lens and Your Characters

Going back to Catcher in the Rye, what makes the book so distinct and memorable is not necessarily what happens, but the lens through which we see the action.

You don't need to write the next Catcher in the Rye to be successful. But, we can take lessons from the way personality is conveyed through Holden Caulfield's "lens".

Below, you're going to see four examples. The first example will describe a simple situation. There will be no personality. You will be given cold, hard facts without bias.

The following three examples will depict the same situation, but you'll see the situation through the eyes of three different people.

You will not know anything about these people. You will not know their age, gender, or any other distinguishing information.

Rather, notice how much you can infer about their unique characteristics simply by the way they view the world. And remember, the example is simple. It's the same situation. What takes the writing from boring to engaging is the lens of the people viewing it.

Let's get going.

BASE EXAMPLE: A woman walked through the door. She was wearing a long red dress and black high heels. Her lips were plump and red, which matched her hair. I wondered if she would sit next to me.

EXAMPLE 1: She was extraordinary, like a Goddess. She gave off the Aura of confidence and power. Whether she knew it or not, she was truly the embodiment of Fertility and growth. She wore the colors of fire, and her hair was a mane of passion. I hoped to Mother Earth that she would sit next to me and allow me to bask in the warmth of her glow.

EXAMPLE 2: WOO-DOGGY! Hubba-hubba-hub-ba! You shoulda seen this gal, come walkin' through the door. She was dressed to kill, I tell you, had nice big jugs on her -- the kind you just want to stick your face into and motorboat 'til your wife come back from the derby! They don't have girls like that at the strip bar, dressed all sexy and nice in red, struttin' around like she was the goddamn queen of the crop -- nosiree, I ain't seen a girl like that in years. Come on, honey-bunny! I got an open seat right over here, just waitin' for ya!

EXAMPLE 3: Why did they make chairs like this? Why couldn't they put cushions on them? Probably because cushions would trap germs, what with kids coughing and sneezing and puking all them all day. Yuck. Did they at least sterilize the chairs each night? Spray them down with disinfectant? Why didn't they give us plastic covers to put on the seats? Why is this place so crowded? At least the seat next to me is open. God, could this woman be more ostentatious? Is red the 'color of the day'? I think I'm going to go blind looking at her. No, no no -- don't sit next to me! Gah! She probably has a cold! And she smells funny to boot!

Notice how Quint's personality (his calmness, his roughness) takes a story and creates an ominous, foreboding atmosphere.

Upgrade Your Writing

Stand out from the crowd. Experiment.

Without humans, the world would be a dull place. A rock would be a rock. A tree would be a tree. A river would be a river.

It's not until you add the human element that things become interesting. A rock becomes a tool to one and a weapon to another. A tree becomes a fort to one and a ladder to another. A river becomes a boat trip to one and a place to hide a body to another.

Is your character's glass half full or half empty? Is a glass of spilled milk and opportunity to go shopping, or is it a reason to reflect on the futility of existence?

How does your character feel about other people? Is a ride on the bus a fantastic opportunity to make new friends, or is it a day-ruining horror?

Most importantly of all: are all of your characters YOU?

If you don't know that your characters aren't you, then they are you. Read that line again, and understand.

Your characters see the world a certain way. They have to. As soon as you create a character, you've created a lens.

If you're not taking direct control of the lens through which your characters see the world, then they see the world the way you see the world. All of your characters are the same person with the same brain! They're all YOU!

In short, you need to control the way your characters see the world. The further removed from your perspective, the better.

Are you an introvert? Write part of your story through the eyes of an extrovert.

Are you shy and timid? Write part of your story through the eyes of an adrenaline junkie.

Think about your characters. Consider the events that have shaped them, their upbringing. Think about their friends, their jobs, their lives, their successes, their failures. Consider all of these details. Now figure out how everything has shaped them into who they are when your story takes place.

Give personality to your characters. Stand out from the crowd.

Compare the script of 2008's 'The Dark Knight' against the finished product. Notice how much power is contained in personality.

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