Creating Two-Word Characters

When I posted here back in April (about writing a novel in two sentences), it got a great response. I wanted to follow that up with another post in the same vein, this time about creating “two-word” characters.

Originally introduced to me through the great Dwight Swain, this is a wonderful method for drafting initial character concepts.

Every character has a goal, a mission. Sometimes the “goal” is to simply to serve as an extra—a body to be killed, a boy to be shunned, etc. Other times, their missions are as apparent as the back-cover text.

When you write a novel or an outline and place characters in it, it’s important to know them in and out—this is a truism that’s been rehashed by many writers. While true, it’s not always intuitively helpful for figuring out exactly how much detail you should include.

Some writers swear by including an entire dossier of informational material on each of their main characters—before starting the writing process.

Others choose to be “pantsers”—allowing the sparks of creativity to shape and mold their story people. All of these things can lead to setbacks, but if you focus on creating believable characters, it’ll make the rest of your job that much easier.

In Dwight Swain’s book, Creating Characters: Building Story People, he claims the art of character building can be reduced to a fundamental two-word level. This method won’t be perfect for everyone, but it can sure speed up your planning and outlining process!

The Two-Word Character

Before I get too far into this, I want to disclaim my beliefs on the subject. First,there are many, many ways to create art, and characters are no different. This method is just one of many. But it’s one that has truly helped shaped my characters, without causing me undue stress.

Second, your mileage may vary. As with my previous statement, there are many ways of reaching the same conclusion, and that’s mainly because different things work for different people. If you don’t like this method, don’t use it—but if you’ve never tried it, at least give it a shot!

The Two-Word Character method involves giving at least your main characters a two-word (didn’t see that coming, did you?) description. You’ll expound on these two words as you continue to write, ensuring your creativity,personal style, and overall flair is not stifled by a “formulaic” approach.

The Two Words We’re Looking For Are:

1. A noun of vocation.

2. An adjective of manner.

The “noun of vocation”  is simple—it’s what the character does. Either for a living (a job), as a retirement hobby, a lifeblood, or whatever. It’s the way you might describe someone at a party (or how you might describe yourself).

Your character can be a pilot, a seamstress, a prostitute, a carpenter, etc.

The “adjective of manner” will help further chisel out a nice-looking image in the readers’ mind of who your character is. As we all know, a pilot can be charismatic, mean-spirited, idiotic, charming, or anything else, and a prostitute can be gracious, exuberant, regretful, etc.

Overall, you want to capture the main essence of your character. What they’re like, boiled down into one single word that describes their mannerisms and their personality.

What to Do With the Two Words

Once you’ve figured out the main line of vocation and a general word of description for each character, you can start to write. Sometimes you’ll want to work out a few more specific qualities or quirks for each of your main characters, but if you’re at all like me—you’ll just want to jump in to the story.

The first time I wrote a novel, I messed up big time when I tried to write a character into a scene that I’d never met before. I had no idea if he was young or old, patient or demanding, charismatic or short-tempered. I had to do a lot of extra, unnecessary editing before he really started to take shape in my mind.

My second mistake in character development was going the exact opposite route. I tried to plan in advance every single trait, characteristic, and historic feature of my characters before even typing a word. Of course, this led to thousands of unnecessary words, and while I knew my secondary villain’s nephew inside and out—my readers never needed to.

The Two-Word approach lets me hone in on the two most important, overarching qualities of my characters that will truly bring them to life for my readers.Two words don’t allow me to get into the nitty-gritty details of their childhoods, nor do they allow me to get hung up hair color, eye color, etc., when those things aren’t important to my story.

Using Two Words

Obviously,most of your characters will need many more than two words of description before they become living, breathing people, but the Two-Word Method is great for getting you into your story faster.

Let the story guide the rest of the details—how they talk, react, think, live. Let their two words become the memorable traits your readers will take with them, long after they’ve finished reading your novel.

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About Nick Thacker

Nick Thacker is a writer, blogger, and marketer who blogs about self-publishing at LiveHacked. He also has a completely free 20-week course that helps people write a novel, and has recently released his first thriller The Golden Crystal available on Amazon.


  1. When I do my short list, I’ll do the two word, good guy, crooked cop, bad guy, handsome love etc but before I start writing plots,arcs, subplots I do the in depth character studies. It keeps me out of trouble

  2. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing with us today, Nick!

  3. Alas, I’m one of those writers who composes dossiers. However as I look back, I can see where creating “two-word” characters would’ve helped. I’ll give it a try!

  4. Thanks J.L. and K.M.! It was a pleasure to write and share! Thanks for having me!

  5. Hi Alesha!

    I’ve done that as well, and I actually like having a good amount of information about my characters. If you feel like you need to write up a full dossier, you might try using this “two-word” method to brainstorm and get the initial “gist” of the character written up!

  6. That’s an interesting approach. It wouldn’t work so well for me in my current work though, as none of the characters are what they do – ie, the university professor has left her job to seek goals which have caused problems for her and her children; the coach just interferes, never actually coaches; etc. But then again I guess I’m the kind of writer who, given a rule or parameter, instantly seeks ways to break it! So if I planned on a charismatic pilot, he’d have to be a pilot who didn’t fly for a reason which made his charisma a flaw rather than an asset. 😉

  7. This is a new concept for me but I like it. It gives me a tighter focus when building the character bio and will help me keep up with the cast.

    I use Scrivener’s template for developing characters but focus on primary traits w/o overdoing it.

    Thanks for sharing,

  8. A couple of examples might be nice. Lady Macbeth is an “ambitious wife.” Macbeth himself is a “reluctant murderer.” Am I getting it?

  9. Interesting approach. The second word will the be harder, but ultimately more important of the two.

    Just starting to think about how I would describe my characters’ personalities in a single world has lead me to a minor revelation. The reason two of my characters clash so much at first is because they are exactly the same (but don’t try to tell them!)

  10. Hi Bozo!

    Yup, those are both great examples. When I’ve used this method, I’ve focused on the juxtaposition of the two words:

    For example, a “heroic soldier” is ridiculously cliche (there’s not much juxtaposition; we “expect” soldiers to be heroic) and is going to leave you with little to explore. On the other hand, a “ex-con soldier” as a good guy would be more interesting.

    So would a “cutthroat lawyer-turned-pet shop-owner” (sorry, I know it’s not two words) or an “arrogant florist” (I’m picturing a male bodybuilder who has a secret love for flowers…

    The idea is to launch or jumpstart your character development so that you, as an author, have more room to explore and don’t get bored quickly when you hit a wall trying to build a believable backstory for a faceless teenaged girl who falls in love with a strapping vampire… oh wait.

  11. I think doing it in two words would be slightly overdoing it. However, if I can fit the general concept for a character in five words, it’s good exercise. This “character pitch” can then give at least *some* justice to the full personality behind it. Which sounds like something a good writer will do – an “awkward hero”, or “socially awkward heroic inquisitor”? A “benevolent demigod” or “good-hearted demigod with a dark past”? I find two words to be slightly too limiting.

    Mind you, this comes from the person who finds five-word limitation for general book pitches incredibly suffocating (my story essentially becomes “Star Wars in ancient Greece” this way…), so I may be terribly wrong about this whole thing, but as I see it, probably many good stories got shafted because they didn’t fit neatly into such a pitch.

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