My professor recommended The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri for me to read and, like Aristotle’s Poetics, although it is out-of-date, what it says about story structure, characters, and plot is still true today. I cannot speak for the whole book, as I have not finished it, but I did find the chapter on Characters particularly insightful.
While the entire chapter is 118 pages of examples and in-depth investigation into characters and styles, I’ll only be sharing his skeletal structure for creating realistic and motivated characters.
Egri has separated a character into three main sections: physiology, sociology, and psychology.
- Sex: The gender of your character means a lot and it’s not just “male” and “female”. There are people who identify as trans, non-binary, intersex, pangender, androgynous, agender, hijra, and much more. Different cultures have different names and relationships with different genders and that can affect your character.
- Age: While this may just seem like a number, people lie about their age all the time to seem more experienced when interviewing for a job or to seem younger when trying to get a date. The importance of age also varies between cultures and generations which can affect your character. Do they lie about their age? Is it important that they see themselves as five and a half instead of just five?
- Height and Weight: There are Napoleon complexes and there are people who are tired of being asked if they play basketball. There are also average height people who are affected by that in ways they may not even notice. Weight can define a character more because while height is usually genetic, weight is something a character’s choices and society affect. Are they skinny because they have a great metabolism or is it because they want to look like that celebrity?
- Color of Hair, Eyes, and Skin: I saw a great play called The Bluest Eye (adapted from Toni Morrison’s book) about a young black girl who wanted to be fair-skinned, fair-haired, and have blue eyes so people would like her and she could be like all the popular girls, who were all white. Her appearance was greatly affected by the lack of representation of black girls on TV and in their selections of toys. The appearance of your character and their actions can be influenced by society and the culture around them.
- Posture: How your character carries themselves can represent different parts of their characters. I know a lot of friends who have been drawing a lot since they were kids and they have a slouch to their shoulders from leaning over their sketchbooks. Strict posture could mean a strict family background.
- Appearance: While a lot of the categories have already gone into appearance (Eye color, hair color, skin color, height, and weight…), whether their style is tidy or simple or explicit can really help define the character. Without going into detail about their fashion style, you can easily describe a character in your screenplay with “eye-catching outfits meant to grab attention” better than specific details of their wardrobe and still do justice to their character.
- Defects: Clearly having something that can set your character apart from the average person can lead to a different experience in social aspects. If they have a deformity, abnormality, birthmark, or disease, it can change how people act around them or treat your character. What they take away from those encounters can mold their characteristics and choices.
- Heredity: What has your character gained from their parents? Enviable red hair? A weak constitution? These traits are more genetic than they are learned from constant parental influence.
- Class: What class your character comes from can influence how other characters interact with them. Class played an enormous role in the plot in My Fair Lady. Professor Higgins wanted to see if changing the language of a poor cockney woman, Eliza, could affect the way upper-class socialites interacted with her. Of course, her physical appearance was changed, but she was, under the surface, still a woman from the streets who lived her life off the pittance she got from selling flowers.
- Occupations: An occupation that a character has can tell us more about their monetary situations which is a good way to understand character motivations. Are they in a dead end job they hate just to put food on the table? Do they have multiple jobs? What did they want to be vs. what job they do have? Have they had many jobs due to failure or boredom? In America, careers define people more than they should.
- Education: Getting an education is not always enough, it has to be a certain type. A college education is great, but society places a greater influence on an Ivy League degree. Was your character homeschooled? Did they attend college at an early age? How well did they perform in high school? What subjects did they do best in? How people interact in the influential high school years very much affects who they are. If they had to drop out of school to get a full-time job to keep their family afloat, it can affect their socialization since they don’t see their friends and “drop-out” carries a negative connotation that can keep them from getting a career they want.
- Home life: Everything from parents being alive to their own marital status is under this category. The relationship the character has with those they are living with can influence many of their choices. If they live with their parents, that can mean massive social difference between a fourteen-year-old and someone who is thirty. What about childhood home life? If they were raised in a violent atmosphere, they might be a shy, tentative person or quick-tempered.
- Religion: Depending on what religion your character has, they might have some strict rules or beliefs that they adhere to. Those who observe Hinduism do not eat beef, which could cause conflict if they room with someone who does not share that belief and loves making hamburgers. Pagan beliefs vary and require a lot of different rituals and is usually associated with a negative stigma. A pagan believer might seem different than a Quaker, but depending on the faction of Quaker, they may not be so different after all.
- Race, Nationality: It goes without saying that in this modern day, race has a large influence on how people treat each other. A character is defined just as much by how they respond and act toward others from a different race as they are growing up as the race that they are.
- Place in Community: Are they a leader? Are they involved in clubs or societies that may affect who they are to certain people? They could also be someone in the community that is shunned or perhaps they were removed from the community for some kind of unforgivable infraction.
- Amusements, Hobbies: How someone spends their free time can tell you a lot about them. Do they read? What genre? Do they like to tinker or build things? Sometimes what someone’s hobby is, could be what they wanted to do with their life if they didn’t have four children they needed to feed and had to get a better paying job for the price of their soul.
- Sex Life, Moral Standards: These could be two different things. A character could preach certain moral standards perhaps that reflect the standards of their religion, but have a contradictory sex life. Maybe they are doing it to keep their sex life secret to not be removed from the religious community or because they want to stay in their conservative family member’s will. Sometimes people will boast about sex lives they do not have to boost their self-esteem or to impress others.
- Personal Premise, Ambition: What is the goal of your character’s life? This is probably where the story and the character connect. This ambition drives a character’s more “big picture” actions and could be what lands them in the conflict of the story in the first place.
- Frustrations, Chief Disappointments: Frustrations can be triggers for some people that lead to problematic actions. These frustrations can be born of past mistakes and disappointments that haunt the characters.
- Temperament: This could be seen as where your character falls on the Friedman and Rosenman A/B Personality spectrum. Are they a very structured and high-strung person (A) or an easy-going and relaxed person (B)? Of course, this category covers other types of temperament, like optimism, skepticism, etc.
- Attitude Toward Life: Does your character feel cheated? Are they cynical or defeated? They could also live every day like their last or have a goal to help anyone they can. The way they look at life and their own outcome can affect how they approach problems like the conflict of your story.
- Complexes: Characters can have obsessions, superstitions, and fears that not only color their personalities but affect their actions. If someone has an Oedipus complex and only dated people that looked like their mother, it could influence how they interact with others and how others perceive them.
- Extrovert, Introvert, Ambivert: A crash course in this is: extroverts gain energy from and enjoy long social interactions while introverts spend energy and can be exhausted by social interactions. Ambiverts are usually a happy middle.
- Abilities: A multilingual character could be a very openly accepting person to others from different cultures. Does your character play a musical instrument? Do they play it well? Do they use their talents or repress them? Are they proud of what they can do?
- I.Q.: What is there intelligence level? Are they ashamed or proud? Do they even care? Characters with different intelligence levels may have difficulties with conversation. It also affects how characters treat each other. Sometimes intelligent characters lord their brilliance over everyone else while some lower intelligent characters might feel shame.
This may seem like a lot to think about, but you don’t have to base every character off this if you don’t want to. You can cherry-pick what you want to use and build your own structure, but just because the audience doesn’t know something about your character doesn’t mean it doesn’t help them make choices that could affect the main conflict.
The book covers more than just character and I highly recommend it. If there’s anything you want to add or mention something I may have missed, please comment!
Beverly Peders is a Screenwriting student at Drexel University. While focusing on writing for the screen, she has also dabbled in playwriting, writing comic books, and video games. World building is her favorite and she constantly obsesses over anthropology and linguistics. In her non-existent spare time, you may find her begging her plants to stay alive or trying to convince nonbelievers that dragons are real. She is also a percussionist in several ensembles with a love of music that outweighs her skill.