What Steve McQueen Can Teach You About How to Write Characters

One of the best ways to learn how to write characters that live and breathe in their own right is to study the great actors. How are they infusing life in their characters? What are they doing in their performances that transforms seemingly mundane roles into unforgettable personalities?

The 1960 western The Magnificent Seven is classic cinema for many reasons, including a great script, a great score, and great acting.

The lead character in this story is unabashedly the black-clad bald gunman Chris Adams, played by Yul Brynner. And yet Brynner’s character is overshadowed in practically every scene in which he plays with Steve McQueen.

It’s an interesting behind-the-scenes anecdote that Brynner knew—and resented—that McQueen was effectively stealing the show, despite having significantly less screen time and fewer lines.

Magnficent Seven Boot Hill Yul Brynner Steve McQueen

Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven (1960), directed by John Sturges, produced by The Mirisch Company.

How Did Steve McQueen’s Character Steal the Show From Yul Brynner?

Instead of taking his character at face value, saying his lines, and exiting stage left, McQueen looked beyond the dialogue and stage directions and breathed life into even his character’s most mundane scenes.

His character never just sat around in the background, looking on while Brynner’s character took the lead. He was always moving, always adding personality and idiosyncrasy, never allowing his character to become mere scenery, even in scenes where he wasn’t required to do anything but be present.

Brynner was so irked by McQueen’s scene-stealing performance that he supposedly hired an assistant just to count how many times McQueen drew attention to his character by fiddling with his hat.

Magnificent Seven Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven (1960), directed by John Sturges, produced by The Mirisch Company.

What Can Steve McQueen Teach You About How to Write Characters?

McQueen’s is an example even writers can learn from.

Never settle for letting your characters lie flat on the page. You could probably get away with letting them speak their dialogue and meander off-screen, but if you look a little deeper, if you mine your character’s personality beyond the obvious, you’ll likely find a bigger, more unique personality than you realized you had.

And, like McQueen, your character may well go from bit role to all-star! 

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! As you’re pondering how to write characters, what are you doing to give them unique life on the page? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Thanks for this video! Watching it reminded me that, um, my characters are starting to get boring. It urged me to find some ways to spice the story up and make those much loved characters steal the show 🙂 Your blog is always such a help to me in my writing!

  2. I remember those scenes McQueen stole – what a great insight. In novels, we tend to focus on the speaker, but so much cna be accomplished with character revelation by having a bystander use body language to show a reaction, without even speaking or breaking up a conversation. Thanks for this valuable tip!

  3. I loved seeing you! Thank you for the sage advice, I’m looking forward to adding more depth to my characters in my new WIP. I really want them to feel real.

  4. You’ve made me want to watch The Magnificent Seven (a feat my husband has never accomplished!) Great point for writing scenes – and what’s also important is how the other characters react to that. Are they irritated? Unnerved? Put at ease?

  5. Am not able to hear you, Kim. Speakers are working because I can her the intro music just fine, but when you begin speaking, it is nothing but static. I’m so bummed!

  6. @Mia: Spice those characters up! That’s always one of the most fun parts of writing.

    @Gray: After watching a movie more than once, I’ll often focus on the “background” characters. It’s interesting to watch how actors respond when the spotlight isn’t on them.

    @T. Anne: Have fun! Adding layers to characters is always one of my chief joys in fiction.

    @dirtywhitecandy: It’s a great movie. One of my oft-watched favorites from childhood.

  7. @Cynthia: Are both your speakers working? Unfortunately, the mic I use to record audio is mono, which means the sound only comes out of one speaker. I’m working to correct this problem in future videos, but in the meantime, if you listen on a computer with both stereo speakers working (or with earphones), you should be able to hear the video.

  8. That’s it! I haven’t noticed until now, but one of the speakers is not working. Better get that fixed!
    Thanks Kim

  9. We’ll both work on it! 😉

  10. Excellent lesson, K.M. This really made me think about my characterization. I love this blog! 🙂

  11. Glad it got you thinking! Have fun with your characters.

  12. Interesting observations. I’ve never seen the original Magnificent Seven. Perhaps I shall put that on my list to pick up at the video store soon.

    One thing I never want is my characters to be flat. I may occasionally use a stereotype (though I try to avoid it if at all possible) for a character that’s only appearing in one or two scenes, but I want them to seem as real as you or me.

  13. The original’s a classic. One of the best westerns every made, IMO. The remake and the TV series didn’t compare.

  14. Very interesting. I am going to have to go back and watch the movie and play closer attention. I am sure my husband won’t mind getting the DVD out to watch that one with me.

  15. Pretend you’re Brynner’s assistant and count how many times McQueen messes with his hat! Lots of fun.

  16. Another great Vlog post. All good stuff to remember ;o)

  17. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  18. I don’t often comment but I always read your blog. Thank you for taking the time out to help other writers improve their skills. Since I’m working on my very first manuscript, I can use all the help I can get. :o)

    You not only present the information, but you do it in a fun, approachable way. This industry is difficult and… discouraging in so many ways. It’s nice to have a place like this to come to where you know you’ll get sound advice.

  19. Thank you, Lee. I’m just thrilled that I’m able to help people. Always makes my day!

  20. I’m a movie buff and have many secondary characters that became favorites because they used that same method. It is an intersting comparsion to make to literary characters. A good tool for the writing toolbox. I like the vlog concept.

  21. Sidekicks are often some of my favorite characters – both in books and movies and in my own stories. There’s a lot of “wiggle room” with less important characters that allows for all kinds of possibilities.

  22. I never quite made the connection between McQueen’s character and some of my background characters, but it makes a lot of sense. Thanks for all your advice. I am learning much.

    ~ Just Joany
    Red Wagon Flights

  23. I really loved this, especially because I love Steve McQueen. He’s STILL the cool guy. But it’s a great way to think about what the characters are doing in the background.

  24. @Joany: We can apply McQueen’s lessons to main characters too. Let’s make them all pop off the page!

    @Lindsey: Yep, the King of Cool reigns on. 😉

  25. I enjoyed this. It’s the second blog post today that I’ve read/watched on character. It makes me excited to get back with my characters. Thanks so much for sharing. I look forward to check out our more on your blog.

  26. Oops I logged on with my wrong ID. Here’s my blog address. 🙂 Have a great day! Alicia

  27. Glad you enjoyed them! I’ll pop over to your blog and take a look. 🙂

  28. I’m glad you posted this! My characters are getting a little flat lately and this is a good reminder to get them moving:)

  29. Crack the whip on them! Lazy characters just won’t do. 😉

  30. Fun to watch you and hear your voice. Feel like I’m getting to know you more. :O)


  31. Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  32. I loved your video post. It really made a great point. No matter our role in life we are all important. Thanks for your continued teaching.

  33. It’s true: no character is too insignificant to be overlooked. They can (and should) all bring something special to the story.

  34. Great job, K…! 🙂 You’ll never cease to amaze me. *hug*

  35. Thanks, Anna! 🙂

  36. Hi Katie,

    When I commented the other day about a speaker problem and not being able to hear the video, I called you Kim.

    Let me apologize for that right now. I know your name is Katie, but my daughter’s name is Kim and I think I just had a senior moment:-)

    Please forgive my error.

    Thank you so much,

  37. Oh, no worries. I actually get called “Kim” quite often. People see the K and M and think there should be an “i” in the middle!

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