Nuance: A Key to Real-Life Characters

I love watching movies and TV. Love being transported by the stories and entertained by the characters. Lately, I’ve been keying in on something, though, that is helping me with building characters in my fiction.


It’s defined by good ol’ Webster’s as “a subtle or small distinction,” but I’m finding that it could be defined as “the difference between real-life and stereotypical characters.” It’s the subtle ways we show who are characters are. The little hints we plant that let the true heart peek through. The barest hint of something lurking in a smile…the slight twitch at the corner of the eye…the tremor in the hands…a stiffening of the back…

Little actions with huge impact.

One of the biggest mistakes writers make is crafting characters that are stereotypical, clichéd, or over-the-top. Especially villains. But few people in real life are that black and white. We need to create characters who live and breath—and who aren’t quite so clear-cut in their words and actions. Let’s use some nuance in our writing.

So how do we find these nuanced elements to breathe life into our characters? I’m discovering them in the actors who bring TV shows and movies to life. I realized this while watching a scene of one of my favorite shows: Law & Order. It was in an episode called “Fluency,” and features prosecutor Jack McCoy. He was questioning a man who manufactured a bogus flu vaccine, then sold it to those who would sell it to doctors. As a result, people who thought themselves protected, weren’t. And sixteen of those people died. This is one of my favorite scenes because McCoy uses a great movie, The Third Man, to make a powerful point. But this time, when I watched the scene, I started asking myself why I like McCoy’s character so much. And what I like—and don’t like–about his mannerisms. For example, his voice gets too strident for me when he lets things get to him during a trial. But in this scene, the way the memory of the movie hits him, and the way he relates it to the accused…it is, for me, perfect. His expressions, the movements of his hands, his tone of voice…all nuanced in such a way as to show McCoy, realizing as he talks, how perfect the parallels are between the movie and what this man has done. And the man’s reaction? That, too, was perfect.

Which led me to thinking about other nuanced actors:


Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Jim Carry in The Majestic

Robin Williams—have you seen him in a serious role? Amazing.

(just a side note: I found it interesting how some of our funniest, and over-the-top actors can also be the most powerfully nuanced.)

Haley Joel Osmet in The Sixth Sense

Mel Gibson in Signs

Kevin Spacey in…well, most any role he’s played.

TV Shows:

Robert Taylor in Longmire

Thomas Gibson in Criminal Minds

Tim Roth in Lie to Me

Ernie Pantusso in Cheers

Summer Glau in Firefly (and the movie, Serenity)

I’m sure you have lists of your own. So I encourage you to watch them again. And this time, when you do so, let them help you gain a better understanding of nuanced actions, words, tone of voice, body language…all those things we use to put the flesh on our characters’ bones. Ask yourself what you like—or don’t like—about the characters. And study the performances. Then put what you see and hear and learn to use.

Your characters—and your readers—will thank you.

Oh, and if you’d like to see it, the Law & Order scene is here. Have fun!


48 Responses to Nuance: A Key to Real-Life Characters

  1. Avatar
    Jan Cline June 24, 2015 at 4:55 am #

    TV and movie characters are a great source of inspiration and learning – thanks for posting this. I have watched classic movies since I was a kid and I see a movie in my head when I write, but I do forget to pay attention to the characterizations. I don’t watch many movies anymore, but this is a good reminder to dig out some of my favorites and watch with a new eye. This is often my weak point in my stories, especially since I write historical. Thanks Karen!

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 24, 2015 at 1:05 pm #

      I watch a lot of movies and TV shows, and find that I learn even when I’m rewetting something I’ve seen over and over. Every viewing is like peeling back the layers to understand the elements of the story. And isn’t that what we hope our books become? Stories and characters that readers will want to revisit, over and over? So what better place to see how that’s done than in the performances that move us.

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    peter June 24, 2015 at 5:12 am #

    That you can recognize its value is telling enough. My son has been taking us back to some golden oldie movies and what strikes me so often is the lack of subtlety. They almost seem to patronize the audience by filling in every empty space or awkward space – it is even true of 80’s movies. I watched American Sniper this weekend, in which Brad Cooper’s role is never quite placed – it is, as Helen Keller said, more felt than told (almost said telt). Past filmmakers would have amplified his guts and glory for the sake of the American Dream, but in a strange way his misguided patriotism is his notable flaw – it is worthy, but as his wife keeps saying, “so is your family”. Then it omits his untimely death and just fades away with a short message. I have seen a lot of Eastwood’s recent work and he is so underrated as a director. I have been very aware of being nuanced with my characters and tended to let character plays reveal the actors, but critics did advise me to at least bring some physical context (color hair, eyes, etc) – even then, a short character can be revealed in a subtle way, as in “He bent his 5’10 frame as she just walked through”. Its more like a Monet or Van Goch than a Van Rijn.

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      Karen Ball June 24, 2015 at 1:08 pm #

      Agree wholeheartedly on Eastwood. Love his work as both an actor and a director. And yes, we do need to show some physical characteristics in our books. We can see those things for ourselves in movies and TVs, but in books we need to let our readers see whatever physical characteristics will give them a solid picture of our characters. And yes, you’re right, nuance is as important when doing that as in any other element of building believable characters!

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    James Scott Bell June 24, 2015 at 5:13 am #

    Just watched two masterful performances by one of our greatest actors, Spencer Tracy. Watch Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend sometime. Just the changes in Tracy’s facial expression are hilarious. The nice thing for writers is that there’s voice-over narration for these moments, giving us a hint of how we could handle these things in prose.

    Oh, and if I were the judge, McCoy would never get to ask that question.

    But The Third Man is indeed a great film for this subject. Orson Welles plays one of the most loathsome villains in post-war cinema…yet you can’t help liking him. His performance (a small one) was so popular it spawned a radio show featuring his character!

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 24, 2015 at 1:00 pm #

      Jimbo, are you trying to insert courtroom reality into my illusions? Not nice.

      Yes, Spencer Tracy was amazing. As was Orson Wells. As a student of films and acting, who do you think are comparable (if that’s even possible) contemporary actors to these skilled performers?

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    Lancia E. Smith June 24, 2015 at 5:15 am #

    Thank you, Karen. This is particularly needed this morning for me regarding a real a life situation I must face shortly. Thank you for the reminder and the example of how to address to people involved in failure to think through the consequences of their actions. The reminder of nuance is so important. Good judgement, kindness, and wisdom are all nuanced. I will take special note of this and truly appreciate your timing for sharing this post. Blessings to you today.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 24, 2015 at 1:09 pm #

      And the same to you, Lance. May your conversation be steeped in God’s wisdom and grace.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 24, 2015 at 1:45 pm #

      Make that Lancia. Spell check didn’t like your name…

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    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser June 24, 2015 at 5:50 am #

    Nuance is hard to bring out deliberately without making it caricature, but sometimes it just happens.

    The best-liked and (I think) most nuanced character I ever wrote came alive in a short-fiction “challenge” blog piece that was written in about 20 minutes, at the end of a very trying day. In the scope of that 1000 words I achieved, with no rewrites, what I’d spent months trying to craft in novels.

    I’m hesitant to do this, but since there’s no ‘profit’ involved…here’s the link. I like the character enough to want to share him; on his merits, not mine.

    • Avatar
      Johnnie Alexander June 24, 2015 at 7:23 am #

      Andrew, just read your story.


      That’s all I’ll say so as not to spoil it for anyone else while urging everyone else to follow that link.

    • Avatar
      peter June 24, 2015 at 8:09 am #

      Loved it

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      Sandy Faye Mauck June 24, 2015 at 11:28 am #

      Felt like I was there, Andrew. I second the wow.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 24, 2015 at 1:03 pm #

      Hey there, Andrew. In case you’re wondering, I have written the blog I promised last week–in fact, it turned into a two-part post. Which meant, because of travel schedules, that the first post needed to be delayed a week. So tune in next week for the blog based on your question about legacy.

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    Connie Almony June 24, 2015 at 6:38 am #

    Characters to me are the most important part of the story. If I’m not invested in the character, I don’t care what happens to them. If the story is so-so, I may continue to read if only just to hang out with the characters a little while longer.
    I think it’s wise to take acting cues for writing, and the subtleties of the actors. I once heard Deniro had an animal in mind that informed each role he played. I sometimes do this with the characters I write. I might even have a song or a band that informs a character because they have a “feel” about them that just comes across if I’m writing while listening.
    Sometimes I immerse myself in characters too much. While writing a rock musician, my daughter started calling my “rock-n-roll” mom because I’d started to dress differently. My husband said I’d developed a funny little smile he’d never seen before. It was the character, Chris’s smile. My hair went from bone straight to wavy, like his. While writing a flirtatious female with spiral curls, I found myself winking at people a lot, and my hair developed spiral curls at the base of my neck that only showed when I wore my hair up (for real!). Then one day in the shower I noticed I was losing a bit of hair (thank goodness this was temporary). I gasped when I realized the character I’d been writing the most at that time was bald … and arrogant—Oh no!
    If anyone reading this owns the video “Big Hero Six,” they should check out the bonus material where the artists discuss developing the characters. They used something they called the café to develop how a character would interact in space. Here is the youtube clip of the café (but it doesn’t have the artists describing it, unfortunately)

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      Karen Ball June 24, 2015 at 1:12 pm #

      Connie, love the idea of animals to inform our characters! And as I read your post, I thought of another character we all have in our books but too often don’t use as well as we could: the setting. Regions, geography, culture…all these can become characters as well, setting a tone and mood.

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    Johnnie Alexander June 24, 2015 at 7:13 am #

    The trick, and what I’m working on, is showing characterizations without resorting to cliché or getting too bogged down (which can be worse than telling). I love the Eliot Spencer character in Leverage because of how much he communicates with his facial expression. His eyes sometimes lengthen instead of widen, but have you ever read, “His eyes lengthened” in a story? It sounds kinda weird. But that’s what Eliot’s eyes do. Or what Eliot does with his eyes. (LOL)

    I very much appreciate this post, Karen, and thanks for including the Law and Order clip. I’m wondering how to write that moment when McCoy thought of The Third Man without resorting to the mundane.

    His eyes . . . what?

    [I’ll be thinking about this off and on all day (smile).]

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser June 24, 2015 at 7:24 am #

      “eyes lengthening” reminds me of a wonderfully nuanced character, brought to life in one sentence, and all because of a typo. It’s written in first-person.

      “I looked into the mirror as I combed my lone straight hair. I knew I was not pretty.”

      • Avatar
        Andrew Budek-Schmeisser June 24, 2015 at 7:27 am #

        Oh, drat! Now I added a typo.

        It should read,

        “I looked into the mirror as I combed my lone, straight hair. I knew I was not pretty.”

        What a difference a comma makes.

        • Avatar
          peter June 24, 2015 at 8:07 am #

          so having a haircut takes on new meaning in your case!!

        • Avatar
          Johnnie Alexander June 24, 2015 at 8:55 am #

          Now I’m laughing so hard I can hardly type. How am I supposed to finish writing the serious scene I’m working on now???

          Comma or no, that’s hilarious.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 24, 2015 at 1:23 pm #

      Ooo, I love a challenge. Let’s see…

      “Mr. Peters…” McCoy looked down, his features clouded, and for a moment he seemed at a loss, but then–
      His chin–and the cloud–lifted. “Did you ever see an old movie called The Third Man?”
      The hint of certainty in his tone moved me to the edge of my seat.
      This was going to be good.

      • Avatar
        Johnnie Alexander June 25, 2015 at 9:10 am #

        Karen, thanks for writing out that moment. I love the simple sentence: Clarity.

        One word can convey significant meaning in the right context.

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    Carol Ashby June 24, 2015 at 8:25 am #

    One of the best actors for revealing thoughts and emotion with his face is Colin Firth.

    I LOVE Austin’s “Pride and Prejudice, and we have every version filmed since 1939 that is available on DVD. I’ve watched each of them many times because my husband likes them enough to choose one himself for our evening movie time. If you want a fascinating translation of the theme to modern times, watch “Bride and Prejudice.” It is the story recast into modern India, where many of the same social conventions regarding women and marriage still exist.

    Firth is by far the best at portraying the subtle changes of thought and emotion for the Darcy character. If you’ve never watched his performance as Darcy in the A&E version made in 1995 when he was in his thirties, you’ve really missed something. His unusual skill is probably why he recently earned Best Actor for his portrayal of King George in “The King’s Speech.”

    After reading this post, I’m feeling inspired to watch Firth again to analyze and take notes on what he does with his face that is so effective. What a fun way to get some show-not-tell training!

    • Avatar
      Johnnie Alexander June 24, 2015 at 9:01 am #

      The A&E version of P&P is my all-time favorite. The best adaptation ever. Now I want to watch it again.

      I think researching nuance is a great excuse for spending a day watching TV. And if I meet this week’s writing goal, that’s what I’ll do this weekend. 🙂

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      Jeanne Takenaka June 24, 2015 at 10:09 am #

      I completely agree about Colin Firth and the A&E Pride and Prejudice. He’s a master at nuance!

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 24, 2015 at 1:24 pm #

      Too funny! I just watched a Collin Firth movie last night with my family, and wished I’d included him in the blog. And now here you are, doing exactly what I wanted to do. Great call.

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    Wendy L Macdonald June 24, 2015 at 9:27 am #

    Thank you, Karen. Excellent advice, great movie clip, and a wonderful short-fiction link from Andrew. I’m inspired. Now I’m heading back to my WIP.
    Blessings ~ Wendy ❀

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 24, 2015 at 1:25 pm #

      You’re so welcome. Here’s to a productive and happy-making session of writing.

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    Nick Kording June 24, 2015 at 10:05 am #

    I love television and movies – at least when the acting is good and the story is watchable. Sam Waterson tops my list as one of the greats, so much so I even watched a little of Grace and Frankie because he stars in it. He reminds me somewhat of Kevin Spacey in that his face and tone of voice tell a story even when the writing fails to be spectacular.

    And yes, James Scott Bell is right . As a former lawyer, I agree the line of questioning would never be allowed but it would make for an interesting trial if you could.

    Thanks for the great insight and reminder, Karen.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 24, 2015 at 1:26 pm #

      As you probably know, the honorable Mr. Bell was once a lawyer as well. Just one of the many reasons I love him.

      Most of the time.

      • Avatar
        Karen Ball June 24, 2015 at 1:48 pm #

        Okay, for some reason parts of my replies are getting chopped off. I put a <> after my comment about loving him most of the time, so you’d all know I was kidding. Yes, it’s more nuanced without the <>, but in this case, I think nuance can lead to misunderstanding. Don’t want anyone thinking I don’t like Jim. 🙂

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    Jeanne Takenaka June 24, 2015 at 10:13 am #

    I loved this post, Karen. And I LOVE watching movies, not so much television. I love to study the plot and various elements of the story. I need to watch more for character nuance and quirks. As was mentioned above, A&E’s Pride and Prejudice was the first movie to come to mind when I thought about nuance. Jennifer Ehle does such a great job at conveying messages without saying a word. The whole movie is well done.

    I really enjoy Leap Year, as well. The characters are each so distinct. Amy Adams plays her character so well, and you can see so much in the facial expressions and her actions. Matthew Goode does a great job conveying the genuine feelings and thoughts of his character too.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 24, 2015 at 1:28 pm #

      Ooo, Amy Adams. Yes. Her performance in Enchanted was wonderful. Watching her trying to adjust to the real world from a fairy-tale existence…

      Okay, now I have to watch that movie again!

      • Avatar
        Carol June 24, 2015 at 9:18 pm #

        Adams was very funny in Leap Year and Enchanted, but my vote goes to Ehle. She played a virologist in Contagion. She really nailed the female scientist with her intense passion for the work and her warm human relationships, especially in one pivotal scene with her father. She captured what female scientists are really like rather than portraying the stereotype. Her performance in “The King’s Speech” was also a masterpiece of speaking without saying any words.

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    Sandy Faye Mauck June 24, 2015 at 11:18 am #

    Love nuance. I find it is so often done by the emotional expressive and those who show little of it. I thought of Sam Elliot. Everyone loves him he has such a sly way of showing emotion but that is who he is. The actors I loved in the old movies were generally “themselves”. Actors like Jimmy Stewart, Greer Garson. Or clever annoyances like Jack Elam and Sydney Greenstreet. Just wanted to strangle George Saunders as the subtile villain. S thatuch a perfect thing to use his voice we knew so well as “Sheer Con” in the jungle book. (spelling intentional)

    But what I don’t get is the black and white thing and yes I have read it over and over in the writing books but if a villain is a heartless sociopath why should there be any gray areas? They are only likable ever to those they con. A given over to the devil person is just black. I have 3 villains and one is that way – not the others. I like her because she is fun to write but that is about it. I love to hate her. One editor says – too black and another editor says she didn’t care- she loved the story. She seemed to love hating the villain, too.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 24, 2015 at 1:37 pm #

      Sandy, it’s not black and white in their evil, but in their portrayal. And I’m not saying make them likable, though some writers have done that well. What I’m saying is don’t make their evil cliched or overbearing. One dimensional.

      It’s far more powerful to hint at what lies beneath the surface of a character than to hit the reader in the face with it. For example, I’ve seen many villains portrayed as foul-mouthed, angry, off-the-scale mean or abusive. But what if you had a villain whose speech was quiet, never foul. Who seemed, on the surface, kind. But your portage sees something there…something behind the man’s smile. Something…wrong. And it’s not until the reveal that we see just how deep this man’s evil is. And even at that moment, rather than him gloating or being over the top, he’s subtle. Soft speech, even a regretful, almost kind tone as he says what he’s going to do to his victim.

      I’ve always felt that what is implied is far more effective than being over the top.

  13. Avatar
    Robert Treskillard June 24, 2015 at 12:07 pm #

    Another TV show that really exemplifies the nuances of a character is FOYLE’S WAR, a detective show set in 1940’s war-torn Britain.

    I’ve heard that the man who plays Foyle, Michael Kitchen, actually asked the director to give him *fewer* lines to say, and that he wanted to convey things through subtle emotion and acting more than speaking. After seeing two episodes of the show (which has all 8 seasons on Netflix, btw), I would agree that this is done excellently.

    Highly recommended.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 24, 2015 at 1:37 pm #

      Oh boy! A new show to check out. Thanks!

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    Teresa Pesce June 24, 2015 at 12:30 pm #

    The actors I love are those whose emotions show on their face. In a decrepitly old reference, actor Victor Mature once said he had three facial expressions: full front, profile and three-quarter. I’ve heard many people object to the stone-faced Megan Boone on The Blacklist.

    When I direct actors, I find they go to the “default face.” Happy is a smile. Mad is a frown. After a little work, it’s amazing what they can actually do. They also default verbally. Anger is yelling. Peter O’Toole has a scene in Stuntman where he becomes angry when a cameraman calls “Cut” on O’Toole’s set. The line is, “Damn your eyes, how dare you yell cut on my set?” He doesn’t yell. He doesn’t even stand up. He sits, and his body begins to churn back and forth, and his eyes dart here and there unseeing, and he almost whispers the line. Sometimes the truest physical response is the opposite of the emotion experienced. Actors portraying nervousness sometimes use a cigarette, and their hands shake. I think that’s wrong. When a smoker is nervous and wants to appear to be in control, they use a cigarette because the smoke will hide their face and because the movements are comfortably automatic and will be smooth, making them appear calm.

    When I write, I often describe the character’s emotion and let the reader envision their expression.

    • Avatar
      Johnnie Alexander June 25, 2015 at 9:19 am #

      Teresa, thank so much for sharing your insight. I’ve read before that the opposite action can be compelling (and like Karen suggested in another comment, subtlety can be more frightening than vicious anger). You’ve deepened that concept with your examples.

      The cliché of the nervous smoker is really interesting. Immediately I thought of my dad and you are so right. When he was nervous or upset, his hands didn’t shake. Instead he held that cigarette very still with both hands, elbows propped on the table.

      Just to clarify, my dad wasn’t frequently nervous or upset. He was a dear father who died too soon. (Drat those cigarettes.)

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    m. rochellino June 24, 2015 at 12:42 pm #

    Nuance, spoken or unspoken can be just the right seasoning. I recall this now famous ad libbed scene from “Marty” (1956). After momentarily losing his temper and spouting a tirade at his mother for reminding him about his lack of success with women he gave her a pat on the hand. It silently spoke volumes. To me it said “Mother ,I still love you, please forgive me for losing my temper”.

    Ernie said it just came naturally to him and the studio liked it so much they wanted to leave it in.

    This film was produced by Hecht – Lancaster productions, Burt Lancaster being the Lancaster. Like Ernie Borgnine, Burt Lancaster are others (like William Holden, Audrey Hepburn Greg Peck, etc.) of this era are true giants of the film industry. These older black and white films did not have color to rely on, only creative lighting. Personally, I feel learning the elements (dialogue, theme, premise etc.) of the art and craft of many of them couldl greatly benefit writers of today. These films didn’t need profanity, lewdness, nudity or other devices to bolster a weak story or add “shock” value. They excelled on the excellence of their craft and artistic merit. These are some of the personal goals in my writing ,along with glorifying the Kingdom of course.

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    Karen Ball June 24, 2015 at 1:43 pm #


    So true. A lot of it has to do with personality as well. I know a couple where both husband and wife deal with anger issues. The husband’s reaction to anger is letting it come out in his tone and words–lots of yelling, even throwing things, and stomping around. But the wife, she’s normally a warm, happy-go-lucky sort of person. A chatterbox. And when she gets angry, she goes silent. And cold. They describe their different expression of anger as being a skunk (when he’s angry, EVERYONE knows it) and a turtle (few people ever realize she’s angry. They just wonder why she’s so quiet).

    Isn’t it fun to explore these kinds of things??

  17. Avatar
    Marti Pieper June 24, 2015 at 1:50 pm #

    I love this, Karen. I was doing a paid critique for a novelist today and referenced your content when I was explaining one of my comments about her work. Thanks for making me think about characterization (and voice) in a new way.

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