Tag Archives: writing tip

How to Validate Your Characters’ Traits

The number 4

Validating Character Traits

One of the wonderful things about being a teacher of writing, and author, is that I get to think about my craft and discover hidden treasures that surprise and reward me at unexpected moments.

During a recent screenwriting lecture, a student asked me how to avoid making the forth trait of a character appear less trite and forced? She felt that in many of the films and books she’d read, some by accomplished authors, this contrasting trait appeared superficial and misplaced and detracted from the effectiveness of the overall work.

Just to rewind for a moment: A typical character comprises of four defining traits, the forth of which stands in stark contrast to the others—this, in order to create inner tension and generate interest in the character. For example: a generous, intelligent, educated man who keeps stupidly choosing the wrong spouses; a merciless, relentless, serial killer who supports a favourite charity dedicated to uplifting the education of underprivileged children in the inner city …

I thought about this for a while and realised that I hadn’t, perhaps, sufficiently emphasised the importance of tying each character trait, and especially the fourth trait, into that character’s backstory.

So, if a man keeps stupidly choosing the wrong spouse, find an event in his past that explains this trait, and make it integral to the story. Was he rejected by girls as a youth for a specific reason? Is he simply compelled to accept marriage proposals by women because he knows what rejection feels like?

In other words, seek to explain, in a believable way, where his ‘stupidity’ trait stems from, then reveal its backstory at a significant moment—typically at a turning point, or at the midpoint. The same goes for the remaining three traits. Doing so will deepen our understanding of that character and legitimise his contrasting trait.

Speaking of which, I’d really love to know what bit of backstory fully explains Hannibal Lector’s (the TV series) drive to create macabre meals from human flesh. Perhaps you can write in and let me know.

Summary

Tying character traits into specific and significant events of a character’s life through the backstory, especially the fourth contrasting trait, is essential in creating characters that are interesting, yet believable.

Invitation

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Image: Jukka Zitting
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Story and the Dimensions of Character

Stone engravings

Character Dimensions:

In his book, The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri points out that every object has three dimensions: Height, Width, Depth. Characters, on the other hand, have three extra dimensions.

Egri begins with the most simple of the three: Physiology. To illustrate how physiology affects character, he provides examples of a sick man seeking health above all else, whereas a normal person may rarely give health any thought at all. He suggests that physiology affects a character’s decisions, emotions, and outlook.

The second dimension is Sociology. This deals with not only a character’s physical surroundings, but his or her interactions with society. He asks questions like: Who were your friends? Were your parents rich? Were they sick or well? Did you go to church? Egri constantly explores how sociological factors affected the character, and vice versa.

The most complex of the three is Psychology, and is the product of the other two.

In an industry obsessed with high concept and plot, it is important to restore the balance by placing equal focus on character. According to Egri, it is character, not plot, that ought to determine the direction of the story.

The Bone Structure of Character

Egri provides categories for developing character. Collectively, he calls these categories the character’s bone structure. Filling out the specific details of each serves as a good start in creating a three dimensional character.

Physiology

Sex
Age
Height and weight
Color of hair, eyes, skin
Posture
Appearance
Heredity

Sociology

Class
Occupation
Education
Home life
Religion
Race, nationality
Place in community: leader among friends, clubs, sports
Political affiliations
Amusements, hobbies: books, newspapers, magazines

Psychology

Sex Life, moral standards
Personal premise, ambition
Frustrations, chief disappointments
Temperament
Attitude toward life
Complexes
Abilities

Summary

This post looks at Lagos Egri’s three dimensions that must be addressed in order to craft well-rounded characters: physiology, psychology, and sociology.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, kindly share it with others. If you have a suggestion for a future one, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

Image: Ryan Baumann
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode