So. I teach my students there are four primary elements of storytelling: Character, Conflict, Plot, and Point of View. And I argue that perhaps the single most important element of storytelling is Character, because each of the other elements emerges from what an author does with Character.
Lajos Egri, a Hungarian playwright and creative writing teacher who lived and worked in the United States during the first half of the 20th century, argued that the heart of any drama is its characters. Egri is most well-known for his treatise on playwriting, The Art of Dramatic Writing, which was originally published as How to write a Play in 1942 by Simon & Schuster. It was later revised and published as The Art of Dramatic Writing in 1946.
Egri worked with a number of playwrights and screenwriters, including a 63-year-old grandmother, but his most famous student was Woody Allen. In his biography by Eric Lax, Allen admitted: “I still think [Egri’s] The Art of Dramatic Writing is the most stimulating and best book on the subject ever written, and I have them all” (Lax, 2000).
In his book, Egri argues that the most important question, the absolute KEY to fundamentally understanding a character is “WHY.”
“We want to know why man is as he is, why his character is constantly changing, and why it must change whether he wants it to or not.” (Egri, 2004).
Well-rounded, dynamic characters provide the audience with excitement and emotional investment. Egri claims that there are three dimensions from which characters are fleshed out: the physiological, the sociological, and the psychological.
So when fleshing out characters, we should approach our work from these three dimensions. Here’s some of the information we need to put together during this process.
- Height and weight
- Hair, eyes, skin
- Physical Appearance (good looking, pleasant, sketchy?)
- Physical Defects (birthmarks, scars, diseases, etc.)
- Class (lower, middle, upper)
- Occupation (what do they do? how does it affect them? Pay? Suitability?)
- Education (amount, favorite subject, aptitudes, marks?)
- Home life (Normal? Neglectful? Broken?)
- Race, Nationality
- Social Standing
- Political affiliation
- Amusement, hobbies
- Sex life, moral standards
- Personal premise, ambition
- Frustrations, chief disappointments
- Temperament (extrovert, introvert, ambivert?)
- Attitude towards life (defeatist, militant, passive?)
- Complexes (obsessions, superstitions, phobias?)
- Abilities (physical, mental, emotional?)
- Personality Traits
As writers, we need to flesh out these parts of our characters. Not all of them will make it into our work, but we should know them to bring an authenticity to the character development. We also need to remember that emotion has physical effects as well.
Whatever happens in our stories needs to come from the characters. They need to be strong enough to prove the premise without forcing it. Fleshing out our characters using this three-dimensional approach allows us to frame plot developments in a believable way.
We need to know WHY the characters are doing what they are doing, and this WHY must be believable. Egri’s three-dimensional approach is a tool we can employ to ensure a characters’ motivation is real, and that their reaction–how they act on the motivation–is what these characters would truly do.
Egri, L. (2004). The art of dramatic writing: its basis in the creative interpretation of human motives. New York: Touchstone.
Lax, E. (2000). Woody Allen: a biography. New York: Da Capo Press.