How to Create Nuanced Characters

Today’s guest post is by Nina Schuyler.

In ZZ Packer’s short story, “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” Dina is an incoming black freshman at Yale who isn’t interested in being polite or friendly or accommodating. She’s abrupt, angry, cruel, and at the same time, she’s wonderfully emotionally engaging.

How does Packer do it?

If you’re creating a female character who doesn’t embody stereotypical female traits—nurturing, maternal, you know the list—you have a challenging project, at least if you’re writing for an American audience. (That’s an entirely different topic, which I’ll leave for another time).

In early drafts, there’s a good chance you’ll go too far in the opposite direction. You’ll have a Dina character stomping and growling and swearing through the pages of the story, but she fails to elicit the reader’s emotional engagement.

In your next draft, here are some techniques to create that all-important engagement.

Character’s Reaction

Every scene has a distinct rhythm. Something happens outside your protagonist. Let’s call this an external event. Then, your protagonist reacts. The reaction can be feeling or thought, action, or speech. It’s external event, then reaction, a back and forth, a call and response, a yin and yang, and it’s an ideal opportunity for another aspect of your atypical female character to appear in the story.

In Packer’s story, Dina attends freshman orientation, and they are playing games to get to know each other. It’s her turn to say what inanimate object she wants to be.

She says, “… I’d be a revolver.” Not your typical response. She’s sent to a counselor and to the dean. “You were just kidding,” the dean said, “about wiping out all of mankind. That, I suppose, was a joke.” That’s the external event.

Then comes Dina’s reaction. ‘“Well,” I said, “maybe I meant it at the time.” I quickly saw that this was not the answer she wanted.’ (Another external event, which is implied. Most likely the dean is staring at her with wide-eyed alarm). So Packer gives Dina another response: “I don’t know. I think it’s the architecture.”

Now we adjust our thinking of Dina; she’s not so sure of herself, she’s not so ready to stick to her desire to be a revolver. There’s some flexibility, some room to consider others.

In a different scene, a female student knocks on Dina’s door and says, “Let me in.” (External event). Through the door peephole Dina sees “a white face, distorted and balloonish.”

Dina’s response? “Not a chance,” she says. The young woman begins to cry and says she doesn’t have anyone to talk to (external event); Dina still refuses to open the door (response). But then the young woman recites a Frank O’Hara poem, and Dina opens the door.


Why did Dina open the door?

We quickly have an answer because Packer includes Dina’s thoughts. The character’s interior is a subset of my earlier category, “Character Response,” but it’s important enough that I want to give it its own subheading.

What you can do with the character’s interior—thoughts, dreams, wishes, imaginative wanderings, speculations, doubts, worries—can contrast with the character’s exterior. That gives tension to the story and, importantly, more dimension to the character.

Back to Dina:

I opened the door. It was a she.

“Plagiarist!” I yelled.

Stop right here. Dina is yelling at a young woman whom she’s never met before, who is crying, complaining she was lonely. Harsh.

But then Packer adds Dina’s interior:

She had just recited a Frank O’Hara poem as though she’d thought it up herself. I knew the poem because it was one of the few things I’d been forced to read that I wished I’d written myself.

We readjust our view of Dina. We can’t stay with the conclusion that she’s brusque, unfeeling, angry. She’s someone who reads poetry and presumably writes poetry.

Here’s another example. Heidi, the student who showed up at Dina’s door, tells Dina she needs to eat something more nutritious than ramen. Dina’s response:

I wondered why she even bothered, and was vaguely flattered she cared, but I said, “I like eating chemicals. It keeps the skin radiant.”

It’s a twofold response: first the internal thoughts and how she’s flattered that Heidi cares. Dina sounds like she sort of likes Heidi. Then comes the sassy dialogue. By including both the interior and the exterior as a response, Packer complicates Dina and we can’t settle with our simple judgment of her that she’s angry and antisocial.


So your character is brusque, hot tempered, critical, but she can still have regrets about her behavior. Technically, this, too, falls into the category of “Character Response,” but again, I’m going to give this its own category.

Back to Dina. Heidi’s mom is diagnosed with cancer, and Heidi comes to Dina’s room crying. Dina responds: “It’s all right. It’s not a big deal,” I said.

Then Packer includes another response, an internal one, right after her flippant one:

Of course, that was the wrong thing to say. And I really didn’t mean it to sound the way it had come out.

Ah, she’s sorry that she was so glib—and although she doesn’t apologize to Heidi, the reader knows.

The Ordinary World

What exists prior to the story is the ordinary world. Something comes along and upends the ordinary world and so the story begins. The ordinary world is important. Details about what existed prior to the story help the reader better understand your character and give some clues as to why she acts the way she does.

Dina and Heidi work as dishwashers and have to kill a mouse. Heidi wants to throw it in the garbage, Dina wants to break its neck. Cruel, we conclude. What’s wrong with Dina?

Packer provides an answer by letting some of the ordinary world seep into the story.

I wondered how to explain that if death is unavoidable it should be quick and painless. My mother had died slowly. At the hospital, they’d said it was kidney failure, but I knew, in the end, it was my father. He made her so scared to live in her own home that she was finally driven away from it in an ambulance.

Hold on. Dina’s mother died and Dina blames her abusive father. This is the ordinary world; it happened before Dina’s arrival at Yale. Her anger and her lack of interest in friendships begins to make sense. We begin to empathize with Dina, and that’s a long way toward creating reader emotional engagement.

With these techniques, characters, who at first blush might be off-putting, become compelling. They confirm our understanding of experience, and confront it, complicate it. Readers become emotionally engaged as the characters claim our sympathies despite our initial reluctance.

Nina Schuyler is the author of the award-winning novel, The Translator. Her book, How to Write Stunning Sentences, is a Small Press Distribution bestseller. Her new novel, Afterword, will be published in 2023. She teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco.

Featured Photo by Zachary Nelson on Unsplash.

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