How to Craft Characters Scene by Scene

Dimensional characters are born from drama—not description. Here’s why (and how) to delve into your characterizations one defining scene at a time.

In The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajo Egri encourages writers to craft detailed biographies of their characters focusing on three principle areas: physical, psychological and sociological.

I obediently employed this method for my first two novels, only to find it lacking. Inevitably, I’d end up with a static laundry list of information that helped me describe the characters but offered little guidance in dramatizing how they might behave.

Ultimately I discovered the truth to what many writers had told me (but I hadn’t quite believed)—that once the writing started, the characters took on “lives of their own,” taking me in directions I hadn’t anticipated.

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Now that’s all well and good as long as the characters take you somewhere interesting. But even interesting characters can’t rescue a meandering narrative (the proverbial “Beginning, Muddle and an End” that Philip Larkin famously bemoaned).

So: How to get in all the critical information the “laundry list” biographical method attempts to accumulate (and dismiss with the irrelevant information it obliges), and also gain the living, breathing vividness of characters with minds of their own?

The key, I discovered, is scene.

How Action Reveals Character

The fact that scenes can open up a character in a unique and powerful way exposes a simple, fundamental truth: Characters reveal themselves more vividly in what they do and say than in what they think and feel.

Words and actions involve choice. They show the character making decisions and dealing with the consequences in an immediate way, revealing values (the preference for one option over another) and character (the resilience to see a choice through).

Scenes test character. And we reveal ourselves most unequivocally when we’re tested. It often matters little how we feel or what we think—thoughts and feelings can be changed, replaced by other thoughts and feelings. Our actions, on the other hand, occur in the world, and cannot be taken back. Our inner lives matter in exact proportion to how much they motivate what we do.

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