What Steve McQueen Can Teach You About How to Write Characters

What Steve McQueen Can Teach You About How to Write CharactersOne 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

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

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. 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.

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

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

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

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

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


  7. Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  8. 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.

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

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

  11. Thanks, Anna! 🙂

  12. 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,

  13. 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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