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How to Write Amazing Characters

Updated on October 21, 2021
Kenna McHugh profile image

Kenna has worked with entertainers, promoting special events with musicians, celebrities and dignitaries.


Norman Mailer's "Harlot's Ghost"

Joseph told me at the end of Harlot's Ghost, the author Norman Mailer wrote an essay that made a huge impression. Joseph observed as he was writing the book, Mailer would frequently think about what fun he had back in the good old days when he was a CIA agent - then Mailer would bring himself up short: Hey, I never was in the CIA!

It was as if, he said, his characters had been living in his mind, waiting for a chance to come out and tell stories himself was unaware. "I have the same experience. The single most frustrating experience of my life was trying to write In A Perfect State to an outline. I tore the damned thing up a quarter of the way through the book. Never again!" asserted Joseph.

Joseph Rene Garber, a career businessman who became a best-selling author of thrillers, died on May 27, 2005, of an apparent heart attack at his home in Woodside. He was 61. The photo comes from his obituary.
Joseph Rene Garber, a career businessman who became a best-selling author of thrillers, died on May 27, 2005, of an apparent heart attack at his home in Woodside. He was 61. The photo comes from his obituary.

Writing Prompts

Mailer's story intrigued me. It prompted me to contemplate when I write. I get wrapped up in my writing, too. I asked Joseph about his bestseller, Vertical Run, which I thoroughly enjoyed. "During the late 1970s, on a more or less a monthly basis, the NYPD bomb squad would order our building evacuated because of IRA threats. While walking down 35 flights of stairs with about 5,000 other grumpy white-collar workers, I thought to myself: 'My goodness, wouldn't Alfred Hitchcock make much of this spectacle!' I imagined a Hitchcock hero fleeing the building; I imagined gunmen waiting at the foot of the stairs; I imagined gunmen in the crowd behind him. The whole novel sprung from walking down those stairs and from wondering why those gunmen would want to make an ordinary corporate drone dead, dead, dead."


Have you ever started writing a book?

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Review of "Vertical Run"

Characters Count

In Vertical Run, the protagonist, Dave, overcomes obstacles after obstacles after obstacles. They help develop the character into the story. "When confronted with almost any obstacle, Dave's initial temptation is to blow the evil bastards away," explains Joseph. "As a former MACV-SOG hard case, he certainly has the skills to do so. However, long ago and far away, he vowed that he would war no more. Thus every obstacle forces him to face the sort of man he once was and to fight to remain the sort of man he's sworn to be."

Characters Traits

"For me, that interior fight is the heart of the novel's character development. Despite the fact that the book is widely referred to as an 'action-thriller,' there is relatively little exterior action in it - a brief initial shootout; two episodes in the stairwell; a bit of stalking; and the final, climactic, and cathartic battle," explains Joseph. "The bulk of the tension and real action all goes on inside Dave's head. That's where the character and the plot interact - nowhere else."

Writing Action

After Joseph finishes a novel, the story is different now that it is out of his head. He realized that some of his characters made choices that he did not predict. "I often have no idea what's coming next. For example, in Vertical Run, at a very tense moment, Dave fires off an insult at the bad guy: 'Up your poop with an ice cream scoop.' I don't know where that came from. I had no idea it was on its way and roared with laughter at the absolute incongruity of it," chuckled Joseph. "The line had no place in the whipcrack dialog between good guy and bad guy, but there it was, and by god, it worked, even though I cannot begin to imagine how it arrived. This sort of thing happens to me all the time."

Writing Novels

Joseph and I continued to talk about writing novels. His deadpan wit made our talk eventful. His first novel, Rascal Money, was published in 1989. His second novel, Vertical Run, was published in 1995 and became a bestseller. He optioned Vertical as a movie with Warner Bros.

Before Joseph passed away, he was a columnist for Forbes Magazine and wrote occasional literary criticism for the San Francisco Review of Books. He was a well-known business analyst and served on the board of directors of several companies. He was working on his next novel, which he mentioned while we talked.

College to Armed Forces

Joseph was born in Philadelphia. "A fact which I do my damnedest to forget. Although I skipped about the country in the wake of a frequently relocating father, I mostly grew up in New Hampshire," jokes Joseph. "I spent two years at the University of Virginia majoring in beer-drinking, a discipline for which little academic credit was awarded. Immediately thereafter, in that era of universal conscription, I was subjected to the United States Army's tender mercies, an experience which persuaded me to return to college but changed my major."

Megers and Acquisitions

After graduating, he spent a few years with AT&T. "Then the world's largest and most boring company," remarked Joseph.

Booz, Allen & Hamilton recruited him from AT&T. Joseph calls the company "one of the bluest blue-chip management consulting firms." He has remained active in the consulting world ever since. Before he passed away, he spent his days on "mergers and acquisitions projects - smaller, private, and most assuredly friendly deals."

"Rascal Money"

He began his first novel, Rascal Money, while trapped by a blizzard in Fort Wayne, Indiana. "I had nothing better to do at the moment and was in a shall-we-say cranky frame of mine. That novel was intended to lampoon the predatory ways of the 1980's corporate raiders - a task which, according to reviews in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, I managed to accomplish with some wit."

His second published novel, Vertical Run, which became an international best-seller, was inspired by a spate of IRA bomb incidents involving one of the tenants in his office building.

Simon & Schuster UK published his third novel, In A Perfect State, in 1999. "The yarn is another paranoid thriller. I don't know who the blazes will publish it in the U.S."

Charlies Martin

The video interview with Charlies Martin, who authored The Mountain Between Us, talks about his characters and the changes made from the book into the movie.

Work and Play

Joseph makes little distinction between work and play. "All the money-making things I do, novels, a column in Forbes Magazine, consulting, I do because they are fun. My chief recreations are reading, the opera, charity, and wildlife preservation work, and a considerable amount of exotic travel - when abroad, I usually can be found doing something imprudent involving carnivores."

"The Mountain Between Us" Charlies Martin as Author of Novel

Aaron Sorkin

Playwright, screenwriter and director Aaron Sorkin talks about how he develops his characters in his stories.

Developing a Character

As a writer, how do you put down your thoughts or ideas for your story?

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Some writers use index cards, outlines, or let the story take over. Similar to Sorkin, in the above video, Joseph starts with a character and situation. "And with a vague sense of what's going to occur in the last few pages. What happens in between is as much of a surprise to me as it is to readers," concludes Garber.

© 2007 Kenna McHugh


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