Stein on Writing – Using Markers to Characterize

Chapter 5 of Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing describes a method of quickly giving depth to your characters using what he calls “markers.” These markers are visible descriptions and actions that help your reader gauge your characters’ places in society. Stein cites critic Lionel Trilling’s observation that class differences are at the heart of strong fiction.

I don’t agree that this is always the case, but Stein’s method of using markers to efficiently breathe life into characters seems like something worth trying.

Stein’s class markers include:

  • how people talk, eat, and dress
  • the jobs they hold
  • their expectations in different settings

Stein argues that cultural and class differences elevate the tension in your stories because they’re something we admonish but can’t seem to escape. We like to think we’re above noticing class differences, but the sense of “otherness” we notice in those around us or feel ourselves carries a distinct emotional baggage.

Here’s my attempt at using some of these markers:

Stephen swiped a hand over the front of his blue button-down in a weak attempt to smooth its wrinkles. He hadn’t worn the shirt in years, but Megan asked him to wear something nice, and it was the closest thing he had.

It had taken him nearly the whole semester to work up the courage to approach her in their o-chem class, and he wanted to make a good impression.

He pulled the front of the shirt to his nose and winced. It reeked of the cigarettes his dad smoked inside.

He reached for the doorbell and noticed black grime ringing each fingernail from the motor oil he’d scrubbed off at the end of his shift. He’d had to work late replacing the head gasket on his boss’s daughter’s Dodge Neon. It didn’t leave much time for a thorough scrub-down before heading over to Megan’s friend’s house for what she described as “just some drinks with friends.”

He could still bail. He hadn’t rung the bell yet.

He shook his head, reminding himself how much he’d been dreaming of a date with Megan. He pressed the button and heard the doorbell go off–a brief piano melody instead of the usual ding.

Fingernails. When have I worried about my fucking fingernails?

“I’ve got it,” a male voice called out on the other side of the door before it swung open.

A tall blonde pulled open the door, his cologne washing over Stephen. It smelled like leather and old money. “You must be Steve.” He jutted out a hand.

Steve? Stephen thought. Pump your brakes, Superman.

He forced a smile.

“That’s me,” Stephen said, shaking the guy’s hand.

“Michael,” the guy said, squeezing Stephen’s hand a little too tightly. He had a firm grip, but so did Stephen–a fringe benefit of twisting wrenches for a living.

Stephen squeezed until he felt his callouses scrape against Michael’s smooth palm. Michael didn’t seem to notice, or at least his broad, perfect smile didn’t offer any indication he’d taken the handshake as anything other than a usual pleasantry.

Michael turned to lead Stephen inside.

“Megan!” he called. “Looks like your handsome date has arrived!”