Three-Dimensional Character Building

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.

AoDW
Buy The Art of Dramatic Writing on Amazon.

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.


PHYSIOLOGY 

  • Sex
  • Age
  • Height and weight
  • Hair, eyes, skin
  • Posture
  • Physical Appearance (good looking, pleasant, sketchy?)
  • Physical Defects (birthmarks, scars, diseases, etc.)
  • Heredity

SOCIOLOGY

  • 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?)
  • Religion
  • Race, Nationality
  • Social Standing
  •  Political affiliation
  • Amusement, hobbies

PSYCHOLOGY

  • 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.

Becoming a Storyteller: Plotter vs Pantser, or, Did Stephen King really just call me a Dullard?

Stephen King, in his seminal work On Writing, says the following about Plotting:

“Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort, and the dullard’s first choice.”

Cover of "On Writing:  A Memoir of the Cr...
Cover of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Wait, what? I’m a Plotter! Or, at least, I was until five seconds after I read that line recently. See, these days I’ve been stuck in neutral, my tires spinning in the slick mud of the writing journey, despite the fact that my headlamps are fixed on this shiny new idea. I’ve started a bit of World Building, and I’ve decided the audience, but I haven’t begun drafting. Like I said, I’m stuck.

I’m someone who has always preferred knowing where I was heading and how I was going to get there. Tell me the plan, or I’ll be wringing my hands–having heart palpitations. With this new story, I know who my main character is, and I know what his general conflict will be, I just haven’t been able to shift the damned story into drive yet. So, the plan today was to do a bit of Outlining. Apparently, outlining will get you insulted by a publishing maven, and is frowned upon in some circles.

I can remember outlining the bulk of first novel idea. There were several versions of the outline, and would deviate from it here and there, but there was a plan. I thought it helped to know where I was going–nay, I had to know where I was going. In a recent article for Writer’s Digest, author Steven James says there’s is an inherent problem with outlining.

“Here’s the problem with writing an outline: You’ll be tempted to use it. You’ll get to a certain place and stop digging, even though there might be a lot more to uncover.”

James goes on to make an interesting point I had never considered when regarding the value of an outline. He says that outlining will result in weak transitions between planned scenes. When I think back to my manuscript, there’s no doubt I could shore up some of those links between the scenes I plotted ahead of time.

The Must Haves

In his article, James suggests a different approach, a more organic one. He says that a story must have the following:

an orientation to the world of the characters, an origination of conflict, an escalation of tension, rising stakes, a moment at which everything seems lost, a climactic encounter, a satisfying conclusion, and a transformation of character or situation.

These must-have elements, especially the first couple, need to be planned. I’ve never be one for much meandering, but I could see how allowing the characters explore the conflict would be beneficial in terms of Believably and Causality. I think allowing the characters to roam might help in developing certain surprises, particularly for the reader. I see the value here, I’m just not sure I can practice this sort of writing.

This all makes me think of a quote from Bruce Lee.

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

I realize there is a certain fluidity to the process of crafting a story, so, it might be time to listen to my good buddy, Bruce. At least he doesn’t insult me like Stephen.