Flat to Fabulous: How to Put More Character in Your Characters

Flat to Fabulous: How to Put More Character in Your Characters

Come follow me past Critter’s Creek, to the tiny town of which I speak, about a mile and a hair past anywhere you’ve been. Welcome to Prides Hollow — a place where the simple life is revered, ordinary heroes are appreciated, and the stories aren’t fancy; they’re just about the people.

As speakers we understand that stories are powerful tools to impact, entertain, establish rapport, build trust, form common ground, and serve as a vehicle for helping audience members visualize and embrace our content. I believe that what makes a story so powerful isn’t really the plot, but the characters. It’s the characters we relate to and emotionally invest in. Just as every successful TV show relies on a cast of strong characters, so does a speech. Many of us are leaving a lot of funny on the table when we ignore the opportunities we have to let our characters to steal the show.

Mamma ran on one speed, and that was high. She sandblasted her way through life — eyes closed, changing course sporadically, and wondering at every turn if she should have gone in the other direction. One arm cleaning, another arm baking, an ear to the phone, an eye out the window and looking for miracles every step of the way. Some folks called her a passionate woman. I called her a leech on my soul.


The first question to ask yourself is how interesting are the characters in your stories? Have you skipped over character development to head straight for the plot? Are you telling me about your character instead of showing me your character? Spend a couple of minutes in your story describing your main character before you get into the plot. Just like a story only needs the necessary details, your character only needs a few details to bring him or her to life.

You could hear her singing all the way from the parking lot — her loud, staccato, jubilant notes of a life well lived. The automatic glass doors opened, and I could see this woman standing there holding her mop as if it were a beloved dance partner — as if her faded cotton dress were made but of the finest silk.


Here are eight steps for making your characters come alive.

1.      Give them an interesting name. Funny nicknames are guaranteed laughs. Choose a name that fits the character.

Aunt Bitsy, who was married to my Cousin Cooter, spent most of her time over at Myrlene, Vyrlene and Shyrlene’s House of Beauty, where they shared beauty tips and news that didn’t make the papers.

 2.      Describe an aspect of their appearance that is interesting in a way that shows instead of tells.

Cleetus Harley looked to be one meal short of starving. When he turned to the side, he looked just like a capital “L,” and when he got nervous, his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down like the lure on a fishing line. Bitsy marched — wearing that string bikini and white pumps like a badge of honor. There were parts of her body exposed that only the good Lord knew about, and every one of them was shimmering and shaking wildly back and forth to the beating rhythm of those marching pumps, like some sort of country choir where everybody’s struggling to be the solo.

3.      Give them quirks taken from the people you see in life around you.

Don’t focus on funny. Instead, focus on the real and you’ll hit on the funny. Aunt Vyrnetta was consumed with her personal appearance. She was her favorite subject, and she spent considerable time studying it. There wasn’t a body part on that woman that hadn’t been tucked, sucked, plucked, tweezed, shifted or lifted at one time or another. She was artificial from the inside out. Mamma used to say it was a shame she wasn’t proud of the face God give her. Daddy used to say it was a wonder God even recognized that woman anymore at all.

4.      Show me their conflict. I don’t want to hear about it; I want to actually feel it.

She was sitting there in the dark, strumming on that old guitar, watching her tiny baby sleep — in her faded calico dress, one wrinkle shy of being pressed, and wondering how she’d ever make ends meet. How would she tell her baby girl that this was her world — where Daddies leave and Mammas live in fear? All she’d counted on had long been gone. She wished she could just disappear. Sitting at that kitchen table — been so long since she’d been able, to remember the words her Mamma used to sing —about clouds that roll back like a scroll — and someone Mamma called her King.

5.      Show me their unique perspective on the world.

Daddy was a simple man, known by very few. He never traveled further than what his work required him to. His face was lined with wisdom, his eyes no stranger to life’s toil. Like his feet, his mood was calloused and his nails stained by the soul. Like his shoes, his wants were basic. He was the sort who blended in. He’d come from generations of hardworking, honest men. Good Book was all he ever read — saw things in black and white, A man of strong conviction — didn’t need you to tell him he was right. Daddy was slow to anger — kept his emotions buried deep, Always took the back row — and rarely felt the need to speak. He had no time for useless dreaming — lived in the here and now. He was as stubborn and unrelenting as the sweat upon his brow.

6.      Get into character when you tell the story. Pretend like you are acting out that character.

For example, Charlie shuffles wherever he goes, so shuffle your feet whenever he appears in the story. Charlie wasn’t much taller than the clown’s hand out front of the Ferris wheel over at the state fair. He shuffled wherever he went, and spent the majority of his day staring at the tops of his untied sneakers. Every once in a while he would look up and his face would break out into a giant smile, as if suddenly he just had the greatest idea.

7.      Don’t forget the most important character in your speech: YOU!

Exaggerate your quirks and weaknesses to take your own character from flat to fabulous. It’s not your perfection that will resonate with your audience; it’s your imperfections — especially if you’re looking for laughs. Create a long list (think monologue) of the things that make you weird. If you can’t think of anything, ask a friend. Sometimes our quirks are so normal to us that we can’t see how weird they are to others. Get a group of speakers together and start brainstorming all the things that make you weird. You’ll leave with one giant beautiful list of things you can weave into your speech or develop into jokes.

Hi, I’m Kelly. I’m a motivational speaker and a comedian — which means I tell you that you can do anything, and then I tell you I’m just kidding. I have one son who’s been afraid of the dark ever since I mixed up his Veggie Tales videos with my Law and Order videos. My husband has been in one mood for 47 years. I’ve been in 47 moods since I started this sentence. Yes, I’ll admit it — I draw on my eyebrows. And that’s hard, because when you do it first thing in the morning, and you’re sleepy, you’ll draw them on crooked. Last week I drew one a good inch higher than the other. I walked around all day looking suspicious. Is it bad that sometimes I squoosh the bread in the grocery store — just because I can? I’m so pathetic. There are days when I can’t remember who the vice president is — but I can name every one of Brad and Angelina’s kids. I can’t remember all the verses to the Star-Spangled Banner — but I can be heavily sedated and remember every word to the Green Acres theme song.

8.      Don’t be afraid to come out of your comfort zone with your characters.

In the speaking business, if you blend in, you are forgotten. Characters are one of your greatest tools to standing out on stage. Content can be copied. But nobody can copy you and your life experiences and perspectives, and the characters you bring to the table. Don’t be scared to let them out. You’ll be glad you did.

Kelly Swanson

Kelly Swanson

Motivational Speaker and Owner at Swanson Speaks, Inc.
Kelly Swanson is an award-winning storyteller, comedian, motivational speaker, author of "Who Hijacked My Fairy Tale?" and creator of Prides Hollow and its wacky cast of Southern characters that have charmed audiences from coast-to-coast.
Kelly Swanson
Kelly Swanson
Kelly Swanson
Kelly Swanson

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