Murder on the Mekong

Creating Characters with Personality

A Session with John L. Hart, Ph.D.

A Visit to Sunny Meadows and Deep Shadows Magic Mental Health Center

One of the true pleasures in literature is meeting great characters with remarkable personalities. There is enormous variability in these characters, be they heroes, villains, or somewhere in that nebulous gray ground in between. The architect Ignacio Abel created by modern Spanish master Antonio Munoz Molina in the brilliant In the Night of Time is like reading a Rembrandt. As the end of the book approaches, you begin to wish that the train ride will never end. That is surely true for so many of the great relationships we have with literary characters. They may be as nuanced and complicated as Ignacio Abel or as apparently simple as Winnie the Pooh. In my novel, Unbreakable, I wanted to examine the personal journey of Dr. Israel “Izzy” Moskowitz and how that journey affected his own personality and worldviews in an everyman sort of way.

Izzy opens the novel as an innocent child psychiatrist who has somehow been drafted into the middle of the Vietnam War. My co-author Olivia Rupprecht and I knew from the get-go how much was riding on making his feelings and reactions authentic to what you would likewise feel like if today was your first day in a war. Izzy is the opposite of the typical hardcore hero. He could be you or me. The personality we created for him is one that is bright, intelligent, academic, sensitive and naïve. He has emotional and intellectual strengths that made him number one in his medical school class but now in his new environment are weaknesses. Fortunately he has a mentor, a devious but adept one. J.D. Mikel is a dark ops agent. He needs Izzy for a mission and needs to keep him alive. These guys are unlikely partners, a bit like a kitten and a wolf, but the relationship and contrasting styles of personality and functioning are interesting and revealing of each other, particularly with Izzy.

What follows are two examples to illustrate (1) contrasting styles of personalities and (2) using universal emotions to create a point of empathy with readers while strengthening the bond between two characters.

In the following excerpt Izzy gets a survival lesson from J.D. and we see some of Izzy’s thinking and feeling style as he reacts and responds to this lesson:

He should be dead right now, his first day in Vietnam. He should be in a body bag while his fiancé sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and lit candles. If it wasn’t for Mikel, his blood would be all over the floor instead of the vomit that got cleaned up with –

Izzy lurched to the side and started dry heaving again into the street. There was nothing left to throw up. He hadn’t been able to eat all day. He didn’t think he could ever eat again.

“C’mon.” It was Mikel, his hand on Izzy’s shoulder. “Let’s get you drunk.”

“I concur,” announced Robert David as he grabbed Izzy by one arm and Gregg took the other, moving him out of the flow of traffic and, with a quick turn, down a back alley street.

The street was packed on both sides with small shacks made of tin cans, cardboard, and plywood. Izzy numbly watched a couple of men, who could have been at a stateside barbeque with their Hawaiian shirts stretched across big bellies, supported on each side by two little Vietnamese girls. Even made up like whores with little pushed-up breasts and tiny skirts, they couldn’t have been more than eleven or twelve years old.

They disappeared, to do only God knew what.

God could know. Izzy didn’t want to know.

“I want that drink,” Izzy told J.D., told them all. He honestly didn’t give a rat’s ass if he threw it up immediately, as long as it bought him even a moment’s respite from this nightmare.

The bar they entered was full of drunken soldiers and more prostitutes. Izzy never thought he’d be grateful to see girls who were closer to twenty than ten selling themselves on a very open market.

A terrible really loud band played “Proud Mary,” and that’s when Izzy was jostled by some drunks, got turned around, and was suddenly lost in the smoke and neon.

Frantically, he scanned the room for the guys. Everyone around him was in the same green uniform and he didn’t recognize one face from the hospital. His nausea, momentarily forgotten, compliments of the “Scotch rocks, make it a triple and make it your best” J.D. had ordered for him, returned with a vengeance. And it wasn’t from the few sips consumed.

Homesick, that’s what he was. Literally physically sick with his longing for home. He would easily give up all the years of his later life just to be home right now. No wonder everyone was obsessed with counting the days.

“Three hundred and sixty-four days and a wake up,” Izzy said aloud, wondering if crazy people talked to themselves because it made their alternate realities more real.

The bodies pressing all around took on the substance of fluctuating quicksand and the bass of the band thundered into his brain until he found himself standing in front of a ridiculously big and very drunk warrant officer, shouting at him.

“I beg your pardon,” Izzy shouted back above the din. “I’m lost. Did you say you could help me find my friends?”

“I said Welcome to the Nam, you fuckin’ idiot new guy!”

And then J.D. was dragging the new guy away, shouting, “Try not to antagonize the animals,” as he plowed a path to the relative safety of a back exit door.

Outside it was hot but thankfully quieter, and Izzy wanted to apologize, though for what he didn’t know.

J.D. silenced him with a glare.

“Listen up, because I need you and you are no good to me dead. Wake up and quit feeling sorry for yourself. Nobody here gives a shit where you come from, or where you are going. What will get you killed faster than anything is pretending you are still what and who you were in the world. You are not in the world anymore, you are not anywhere near where there are rules you can still live by. So take note, Doctor Moskowitz, because this is your first, last and only reality orientation that just might keep you alive, and I am telling you: Wake the fuck up.” J.D. gave Izzy a little thumb to forefinger ping on the bridge of his black horn rims. “Now tell me, doc: What’s The Big Message?”

“Wake the fuck up.”

“That’s right. Now follow me.”

While I personally find JD fascinating as a character, my own forty-plus year career as a psychotherapist (who was also drafted the day after receiving my undergrad degree in psychology) gave me an immediate point of empathy with Izzy, and also Gregg, whose academic background as a therapist more closely mirrors my own. In the following scene, which occurs immediately after Izzy’s survival lesson from J.D., we have an example of moving from the contrast/juxtaposition of two strikingly different personalities, to an intense type of bonding between Izzy and Gregg as they teeter between survival and the emotional responses most of us would feel if we were thrust into their same position:

J.D. took off down the alley. Izzy followed as instructed, muttering robotically, “Wake the fuck up, wake the fuck up…” while he tried to wake the fuck back up in New York City, where everything and everyone he’d ever cared about existed on some alternate plane.

But they still hadn’t materialized as the officer’s quarters came into view. Or even by the time he laid in bed listening to the fan turning overhead, the sounds of a Vietnamese family sitting on the porch of their house in back of the villa. He imagined their voices belonging to his mother and father, aunt and uncle, and grandparents; imagined them all sitting together on the porch at their summer cottage while he and Rachel snuck away to make out under the stars, and he imagined all that gloriousness until he fell asleep.

Suddenly, the sensation of some invisible hand yanking the sheet out from under him and throwing him to the floor jarred him awake. There were shadows of racing feet in the hallway, accompanied by shouts of “INCOMING! INCOMING!”

Before Izzy could pick himself up, another concussive blast sounded, followed by screams outside the villa, then another explosion even closer that coincided with a loud bang as his door flew open and Gregg raced inside.

“Come on, get out!” Gregg was hauling him to his feet before the command could register, then together they scrambled down the stairs and out the front door, just in time to see another mortar blast hit. They both dropped to the ground, next to another young man Izzy didn’t recognize.

“C’mon, c’mon!” he urged them, “Get up! We need to get to the bunker!”

Gregg grabbed Izzy’s arm to go, but Izzy couldn’t move. He was paralyzed. Something warm and wet drizzled down his leg. His muscles were like water, his eyes felt like they were spinning in their sockets. He was dizzy, hyperventilating, and he couldn’t stop it, couldn’t even control his own bladder while Gregg shouted:

“Let’s go, let’s go!” Gregg and the other man were up and running. Even if his own life depended on it, Izzy could not follow. All he could do was look at Gregg’s back – which suddenly stopped its retreat as Gregg glanced over his shoulder, saw Izzy still down on the ground where they had left him.

“Izzy!” Gregg raced back to help him up and had him halfway to his feet when the high pitch of another mortar shrilly screamed and they both dove back to the ground, and watched the burning, white phosphorous mortar hit almost directly in front of where they were going to run for the safety of the bunker.

Their companion, the one who had urged them to run with him, turned into a gory cartoon character. For a moment, his legs seemed to be moving from his severed upper body and Izzy could smell seared flesh. He wasn’t cognizant of crying, but it felt like hot tears were racing down his cheeks while he tried not to choke on his own vomit as some important part of him, a part of his self since boyhood that had been raised on Disney movies and Cub Scout meetings departed, never to return again.

Covered in every conceivable bodily fluid except blood, Izzy knew a terrible truth that would forever haunt him: what saved his life that day was that he was not brave; he was too scared to move. The brave man, the man doing the smart thing of getting to the safety of the bunker, was cut down by a random and malicious darkness of fate that cared not a whit for right or wrong. And if right or wrong didn’t matter, what did?


Gregg’s chest was shaking from holding in his silent sobs. Izzy would have offered him a tissue if he’d had one handy like shrinks always did back in the world. But they were no longer in the world and he was no longer the Israel Moskowitz who had arrived in Vietnam just that morning. Izzy really didn’t know who he was anymore and he had no idea who or what he might become. He only knew that if he was going to survive and get the hell out of this hell-hole, he had to be smarter than the smartest guy he’d once been in the Columbia University med school.

“Wake the fuck up,” Izzy whispered as he wiped the snot from his nose with the end of a military-issue tee that smelled like piss and stomach juices minus any solid bits from breakfast, lunch or dinner. In order to survive you had to eat and so he would eat in the morning whether he was hungry or not. He had to eat and he had to remember his first, last, and only orientation, which defined this new reality that came down to four simple words.

Izzy said them once more, only this time like he meant it:

“Wake the fuck up.”

No doubt you bring personal experience and other professional skills to the writing table, but I do believe the study of the mind is particularly useful when it comes to understanding and crafting memorable personalities. Whether your intent is to contrast differences or strengthen bonds with shared emotions and traits, I have an exercise I used to assign to new psychotherapists that may help you navigate this particularly tricky area of fiction. Ready? Good. Let’s get to work!

Exercise 1

I want you to pick out a favorite childhood character and imagine that this person or animal or thing has come to see you at the Sunny Meadows and Deep Shadows Magic Mental Health Center. Sitting in the waiting room you might see The Beast from “Beauty and the Beast” or Snow White or a sad Harry Potter reading a magazine next to the OCD plagued Third Pig with the brick house. Maybe Long John Silver is there, sharpening a blade or Bambi weeping into a tissue and deeply depressed with PTSD. In any event you will be interviewing one of them and listening carefully to them and then writing a description of that character and their personality strengths and weaknesses. Here are the initial questions I want you to explore with your character:

*How does their personality work for them and how does it work against them? Do they know the answer to that question; and if not, how might it become revealed over the course of their story?

*What is their way of seeing the world and other people and how does that shape how they act and react over and over again?

Those are the basics. Now the next exercise is to look at different aspects of personality and how they fit together and operate. Are you comfortable and ready to really dig in? Excellent. Let’s go!

Exercise 2

1. How does this character express him or herself? What is his or her voice like? Must Cinderella talk that way? Is her range of voice and inflection and tone limited and bound by her way of seeing herself? How does she dress and what colors and jewelry or hairstyle can she wear? Does she paint or write poetry or stories and what would those be like?

2. What about her movement? How does she walk and gesture? Is she active or passive in her life? If she danced how would she dance? What kind of physicality does she have? How would she make love?

3. What about her thinking and knowing and awareness? What about her mindfulness or clarity? Is her mind sharp or dreamy? Does her own thinking trouble her? What is it like being in her mind? Is she in her head more than her body? Is her thinking working for her or against her? Does it distort how she sees other people and what they say to her?

4. What about her feeling style? What is the range of feelings that she allows herself to experience and to know? What feelings does she limit or avoid or guard against? Are her feelings so troubling her that they affect or even impair her life, her work, and her relationships, her loving? Does she medicate her feelings?

5. What about her ability to make contact and connect? What about her style of relating to others, to animals, to people? What is her way of relating to children, adults, peers, old people, parents, or grandparents? What about her ability and range and style of loving and being loved by others?

6. Existential or spiritual relationships. Is there some deep connecting place? If not, why no? What reason is there to maintain superficiality?

If you take all of the above and put it all together you BEGIN to have a description of a kind of personality, a way of being a character. Someone who has strengths and weaknesses and emotional skills and abilities and a certain level of what we term emotional or personal intelligences. It can be grown and developed but usually is consistent and steady and often predictable and creates patterns of behavior in a life and can often limit choices especially in stress conditions. Because we almost always go to our habitual strengths in stress situations even if those things do not work so well for us or help us make changes.

I hope your visit to Sunny Meadows and Deep Shadows Mental Health Centerwhere we break down and assess all kinds of characters and personalities, has been an entertaining and helpful exercise. It is a great way to find a favorite character in the waiting room from your life, write out an evaluation and assessment, and actually see how his or her personality is assembled with its strengths and weaknesses.

As for Izzy, Gregg, and J.D., they really did come from the waiting room of my own life as composite personalities of a remarkable group of people I worked with in a front line psych ward, the 98KO, in Nha Trang, RVN. That was 1969, but they are as real to me today as they were over 40 years ago.

Have fun and keep writing.