When I was little I tried to hide.
I was this kid who talked like a Muppet. Everyone made fun of me so I didn’t talk at all in first grade. I was known as THE QUIET KID WHO GIVES HER SNACKS AWAY – SO DO NOT BEAT HER UP. This was an effective strategy against bullying, honestly.
The teachers couldn’t figure me out. I wasn’t intellectually challenged, but I never actually said anything. Teachers tend to like kids who raise their hand and talk.
But talking meant people noticing me. If people noticed me, they might make fun of my voice. It was way better (in my six-year-old wisdom) to be nothing. Quiet. Just there. This is not terribly charismatic.
Then, I wrote a haiku in September of second grade. I had all the syllables right (a big requirement). It was all one sentence (another requirement). It wasn’t about Tonka trucks (against the teacher’s rules). It was about nature. I was the only one who did it right, so the teacher, Mrs. Snierson, posted it in big letters on the wall and decided I was gifted. Whew. Did I fool her.
The poem was:
Spring is fun you see
Because flowers grow with rain
And robins come home.
This is how I learned that teachers are important to writers’ egos.
That one poem got me into gifted programs.
That one poem got me noticed.
That one poem put my life on a trajectory that didn’t have to do with silence.
And I used all that time watching people to learn about the kids who had the ‘it’ factor. Charisma. They were kids like Sarah Silverman and Steven Sills and Julie Zito and Andrea Henrichon. These shiny, golden people. I watched what they did and longed so much to be like them. That poem was my first step.
Let’s face it. Not all of us writers are super charismatic. Some of us prefer hiding in a reading nook to going out and talking to actual living people.
That’s not the rule, obviously. There are some super charismatic authors out there.
So, what does that mean when we’re writing characters who are supposed to be charismatic? What even is charisma any way?
Charisma is when you or your character is so darn compelling or attractive that people become devoted to you.
I’ve met and interacted with a lot of authors with a lot of big followings and most of them build those massive followings with a lot of social media confidence, and a lot of that confidence that I’ve seen is false. They create an online presence that is full of flaunting and preening. They call their readers cute fan club names even when they only have two readers. And that way works. Being super confident works to build charisma.
But I can’t do that. Why? Because I prefer to be authentically me. And authentically me is sometimes sort of confident, but most of the time I am self deprecating and I doubt. This is totally evidenced in Dogs Are Smarter Than People’s Tuesday podcast where my husband almost convinces me that I am wrong about the ingredients in a white Russian.
Sidenote: My husband is a super confident man even when he’s wrong and I actually appreciate that about him because it makes me feel safe. When do I not appreciate it? Um.. when he’s confident that I’m wrong when I’m actually right.
There are a lot of blogs out there talking about charisma and almost all of them are talking about being confident. So you automatically think that if you aren’t confident, you aren’t charismatic, right?
Those blogs aren’t talking about personal charisma. They are talking about charismatic leadership. Those are two different things.
According to Ronald Riggio, PHD, “Personal charisma is a constellation of complex and sophisticated social and emotional skills. They allow charismatic individuals to affect and influence others at a deep emotional level, to communicate effectively with them, and to make strong interpersonal connections.”
So what is this special constellation of skills? Can’t you just believe you’re awesome and be charismatic?
We all know the blowhard who saunters around thinking how awesome they are. We write them into our stories and movies. They are almost always a big, white dude who ends up getting beaten up by the hero at the end of the movie.
So how do we make a charismatic character without making someone who is annoyingly over confident? We make someone likable.
Charismatic people don’t think the world revolves around them.
We’ve all met the people who only talk about themselves. You can be standing in front of them bleeding profusely and they will look at you and say, “Hey, you know I once got this cut that bled like that for like hours. It was a paper cut. Man, that thing bled. You know my mom says I have always been a big bleeder, blah, blah, blah.”
That person is obviously not charismatic. Being into yourself so much to the exclusion of all others no matter what the situation is sort of an anti-charisma.
This goes for characters, too. The character that only thinks about their self when their friend has just lost a hamster, or their zombie girlfriend, or whatever, is an unlikeable and uncharismatic character.
So, how do you fix this? Two quick things:
- Listen to other people when they talk to you. Have your character listen to other characters.
- Don’t make a conversation all about you. Don’t make the internal monologue about your character all about your character all the time.
Own Your Space
When you go somewhere, own that somewhere. When your charismatic character enters the wizarding tournament, don’t have him shirk off to the side. Have her swagger onto the court. Have him stride to the field. You can do this, too. You might be a writer, but own your writing space. This is yours. You deserve it.
When I go the grocery store, people wave to me. Why? I think it’s because I try to be kind and open. I like to hear about their days and connect with them because they are cool people. I never realized this was a weird thing until one of my friends went with me.
We walked through those sliding front doors, a whole bunch of awesome cashiers waved, smiling, and my friend grabbed my arm and scurried over to produce whispering madly, “Those people love you.”
I said, “They are nice.”
And she said, “Carrie, they don’t love everyone. They love you. They aren’t waving to everyone. I bet some of them even know your name.”
She was totally flabbergasted and I was flabbergasted by her being flabbergasted, but then I realized that my normal isn’t everyone else’s normal. The awesome people at my grocery store don’t think I’m better than anyone else because I’m not. But they might think that I treat them better than most other people.
That is actually sad.
Everyone should treat each other with a bit more kindness and openness, honestly. A charismatic person and character, is comfortable enough with who they are that they can treat others well and want to know their stories and connect with them.
How do you do that?
- Be enthusiastic if other people take the time to try to connect with you. This goes for characters, too.
- Be optimistic when you can be optimistic. Lift up other people and their goals instead of trying to drag them down.
- Don’t be afraid to smile or laugh when you feel like smiling or laughing. the
A charismatic person (and character) isn’t afraid to express her genuine emotions. A lot of time, I tell my students that something emotionally huge just happened for their character, but they aren’t showing that on the page and so the important scene falls flat.
So, they’ll write something like this:
Ezra leaned forward and kissed me. I kissed him back. After a moment, he broke away.
There is no emotional investment in those three sentences, right? It’s just actions. You know what happened, but you aren’t invested in that scene. There is no charisma in the character right there, right? Compare that to:
Ezra leaned forward like he was going to kiss me. That couldn’t be right. Ezra Jones would never want to kiss me. Swallowing hard, my lips trembled. I almost looked away, but his lips met mine before I actually could.
Ezra Jones’ lips were touching my lips!
And my lips were touching his lips right back.
The cat screeched in the other room and we broke away, laughing. My hand fluttered up to my mouth. Ezra Jones had kissed me. Me.
So, my point here is not about Ezra Jones’ kiss, but about emotion and expressing that on the page or in your own life. We all walk around broken and pieced back together. People are fragile, inside and out. And it’s natural sometimes to try to hold in our emotions.
Charismatic people are genuine people. They let their emotions be out there for the world to see, but they don’t usually make scenes. They are genuine, but they know the impact that their emotions have on other people and they care about that impact, so they do control their emotions when interacting with others in what could be perceived as a potentially negative way.
That ability to care about others? That expressive empathy? That’s charismatic.
So, to recap. How do you make characters charismatic?
- They don’t think the world revolves around them.
- They own their space.
- They are kind.
- They are expressive.
Random Marketing and Book Things
My nonfiction picture book about Moe Berg, the pro ball player who became a spy was all official on March 1 and I’m super psyched about it. You can order it!
Kirkus Review says: Jones gives readers the sketchy details of Berg’s life and exploits in carefully selected anecdotes, employing accessible, straightforward syntax.
And also says: A captivating true story of a spy, secret hero, and baseball player too.
Booklist says it’s: An appealing picture-book biography. . . Written in concise sentences, the narrative moves along at a steady pace.
This is lovely of them to say. Also, I can be concise! Most of my friends don’t believe this.
I’ll be in Exeter, New Hampshire, on a panel for the release of THINGS WE HAVEN’T SAID.
And the podcast, DOGS ARE SMARTER THAN PEOPLE, is still real. I’m still terrified.
There are new podcasts every Tuesday and our handle on the tech gets better as you go along. I promise.
We talk about love, marriage, living in Maine with dogs and also give writing and life tips with linked content back on the blog.
Yesterday’s podcast was about how I can’t have a donkey farm or be Bono, but it’s also about character and blocking and how dogs are smarter than people.