When my grandfather went out to eat he always put sugar in his coffee, even though he didn’t like sugar in his coffee. He did it because the sugar was free.

I’ve heard that little story dozens of times since I was a boy. It comes up all the time when my family talks about my grandfather. It sums him up in two sentences. If you know that story, you know a lot about him.

Lately I’ve been working to make characters come to life in a story I’m writing. I struggle. I create backgrounds for them so I know how they think, how they talk, what foods they hate, and what they shout when having sex. I make them do and say significant things that will show who they are. But I often fail to build the thing I’m looking for—that fundamental, defining image as stark as being caught in a lightning flash.

I think I’ve overlooked the Free Sugar Factor.

The Free Sugar Factor involves a person doing something that’s habitual, probably trivial, and always unusual. It’s the kind of thing his family would bring up when they talk about him. They might say, “Oh yeah, whenever Aunt Jane got mad she’d drive to the grocery store and sit in the parking lot for an hour or two. What a character.”

The Free Sugar Factor isn’t some pathological behavior, unless the person really is a maniac. It’s doing something everyone else thinks is peculiar, but it makes perfect sense to the person doing it. We all do these things. It’s part of what makes us real people. I’m not sure, but I think mine may have something to do with turkey sandwiches.

To illuminate this whole concept, here are a couple of Free Sugar Factor examples from real people.

My father’s Aunt Delphi, who he swears was the best cook in the world, made a gigantic pan of biscuits in her wood burning stove every morning, far more than the household could eat. The family would eat about a fourth of the biscuits, and then she’d feed the rest to her husband’s coon dogs.

When I was a boy, my father kept a perfectly tuned diesel engine on blocks in the backyard, as I’m sure everyone else’s father did too. It drew diesel fuel from the gas can sitting next to it. Every day when he came home from work he started up the engine and stood there letting it run for a while.

The Free Sugar Factor usually involves a habitual act, but not always. Some isolated acts are definitive in themselves and forever after show what that person was about. For example, when my mother was three years old, her six-year-old brother took her to the nearby store to see Santa Claus. They joined a long line, and they stood just behind an overweight woman. My uncle kicked the woman right in the middle of her ass and said, “Get the hell out of my way, fat lady, I’ve got to go see Santa Claus!”

I’ll bet that gave you an image of who he is.

I think the cigarettes were free too.

I spend a lot of time editing right now. I suck at it because I’ve been through the story in question so often I can now no longer see what’s on the page. That’s a literal statement. I can’t see a misplaced comma any better than I could see Blackbeard’s ghost.

A number of friends have stepped in to rescue me as if I was trapped in the Alps and they were particularly intelligent and generous Saint Bernards. One of my friends, Linnea, came through like a champion, providing me with feedback such as, “I don’t like any of your characters.” Now that is the kind of friend every writer needs like a tick needs blood.

Linnea also observed that several hundred insults appear in the story and that no insults are repeated. I don’t have her verbatim comment at hand, but I think the words “cool” and “disturbing” may have been involved. Early in my first draft I realized that my characters were going to insult each other a lot. Possibly that is why Linnea didn’t like them. I challenged myself to come up with a new insult every time, just to keep things fresh for the reader, and for me as well.

Over the subsequent 8 weeks of writing, I realized that I have no reliable process for creating insults. However, I did come to understand a few guidelines. When I needed an insult, those guidelines reduced my insult-generation time to about 5 minutes of staring at my screen, rather than staring at my screen forever without producing any insults.

To create an insult I first have to know what kind of insult I require. The plain old insult is just a derogatory description. It often involves phrases like, “You are…”, “You smell…”, or “Your momma is…” For example:

“Your breath smells like the inside of a wino’s shoe.”

However, sometimes I need an epithet, which is a specialized insult. An epithet descriptively names the insulted party in some way. Famous epithets include “Oscar the Grouch” and “Capitalist Running Dog.” You can see that epithets include a noun (in some cases a proper noun). For example:

“Barrel full of dumbass.”

I’ve found that the loose guidelines below make for fun insults, although you don’t need to use all of them together.

1.  Make sure the insult makes sense in some way. It should be relevant to the insulted party or the situation.

If the insulted party is an oppressive bastard, an insult like “You couldn’t tell fine wine from your mother’s piss,” would just confuse everyone. Something like “Baby-kicking chunk of butt-fungus,” seems more appropriate.

2. Employ alliteration and/or assonance.

Streamlined insults wound more deeply, or at least they sound better. Alliteration gives an insult extra zip. Hard consonants like “B”, “C”, “K”, “P”, and “T” yield especially pleasing results. Contrast this insult for a tall woman, “Telephone pole with breasts,” versus, “Tree trunk with tits.” You can see which one pierces more deeply. With regard to assonance, compare these insults for a shiftless, untrustworthy person: “Lazy, no-good cur,” versus “Ass-dragging jackal.” Assonance can transform a tedious insult into something close to poetry.

3. Build insults with rhythm in mind.

A rhythmic flow of words, as in poetry or song lyrics, makes the insult fly off your tongue. Such insults produce beauty and malevolent venom at the same time. As an example, for a mean-spirited, petty woman consider these insults: “Cruel, fearful vat of goat drool,” vs. “Vindictive, cowardly yak’s twat.” The first one is fine, and it does the job. But the second has a rhythmic flow that makes it a little sweeter on the ears, in my opinion.

I’ll be headed back to my blind and mostly ineffective editing now. I hope that these insights have enabled you to be just a little bit meaner to your characters—or maybe to your friends.