The Dao of Characterization #amwriting

Charlie and I have been watching a set of Great Courses lectures on Religions of the Axial Age. The past two have focused on Daoism (Taoism). Just in case you don’t know, I am all eat up with Daoism.

One of the chapters of Laozi’s Dao dejing (Tao Te Ching) the professor cited is chapter 11, on emptiness:

The DaoofCharacterizationThirty spokes share a single hub; grasp the nothingness at its center to get the use of the wheel.

Clay is fashioned to make a vessel; grasp the nothingness at the center to get the use of the vessel.

Bore windows and doors to create a room; grasp the nothingness of the interior to get the use of the room.

That which is constitutes what is valuable, but that which is not constitutes what is of use.

Good characterization is like that. For instance, let’s meet Beauregard.

“This is my friend, Beauregard,” I said. “Don’t mention dogs to him. He used to visit his grandparents in Savannah, Georgia every summer and, every time, he got bitten by a stray dog and had to have rabies shots.”


“This is my friend, Beauregard,” I said, letting everybody introduce themselves to him.

Mandy said, “I was just showing pictures of my new puppy.”

“Oh,” said Beauregard. He glanced at the phone screen offered to him, but he didn’t take it. “Cute.” One hand was fisted on the table, the other rubbed his belly.

In the first example, you set up that Beauregard has reason to be afraid of dogs and to dislike Savannah.

In the second example, you set up that Beauregard isn’t wild about dogs and hint lightly at the reason. But you leave the facts unstated. If, every time dogs or Savannah come up, Beauregard reacts in a way consistent with his experience, the reader will fill that emptiness with understanding and sympathy. Even if you eventually state the facts, at that point it will be like putting an axle in the hub of a wheel, closing the door of your new house, or filling an empty vessel with … oh, let’s say beer. Then, if Beauregard has to face a stray dog in Savannah for the sake of his friend, some cause, or True Love, the reader will be invested in his courage.

The best story ever written in English is Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” which states nothing and says worlds. I adore it.

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Write a paragraph about a character that implies something about them without stating it.



I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “The Dao of Characterization #amwriting

  1. Holly

    December 14, 2015 at 8:50am

    Even your first example is better than what many writers do, which is to state that, having been bitten many times as a kid, Beauregard hates dogs. At least you worked it into a conversation.

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  2. Jane

    December 14, 2015 at 10:24am

    Hmm. Hemingway. That story was…..indescribable. How do you think he wrote it? Just one straight draft and done? Then a little cleanup and a polish? I think he kept it straight in his head as he wrote it and was pretty much done.

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      Marian Allen

      December 14, 2015 at 11:40am

      I think he started with the pivotal exchange and worked both ways from there.

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