Art of Dramatic Writing, Part 2: Character

Dramatic Writing 4

Last week, in our our examination of the valuable ideas in TADW, this week, we looked at what Lajos Egri had to say about the premise of your script and why it is so important.

This week, let’s look at what he has to say about creating characters.


Egri likens characters and their actions to storms.  When a hurricane, hits land we experience it as a raging force of wind and water.  It didn’t start that way.

It didn’t start at landfall.  And it didn’t start then and there.  It was created over time and influenced by many factors.  It began as a light, cool breeze across warm ocean water.  As the water evaporated, the air slowed, creating a churning sensation.  As the air and water amassed, it picked up speed and direction until it approaches land where it experience as a raging gale.

Humans are the same.  They do not exist fully created in that moment.  Our needs, wants, choices and emotions are created over the span of our lives.  In order to create believable characters — characters with three dimensions — we must consider all the various factors.

A Character is Constantly in a State of Change.

Everything is in change.  Only change is eternal.  Nothing is static in nature, least of all man.

Three Dimensional Characters

Human beings have three dimensions: physical, sociological and psychological.  It is not enough to know what kind of person your characters are; you need to know why.

We want to know why a character is as s/he is, why his or her character is constantly changing and why it much change whether s/he wishes it or not.

The first order is Physiological.

Our physiological make-up certainly colors our outlook on life.  It makes us tolerant, defiant, humble, arrogant.  It affects our mental development.

The second order is Sociological.

Where you were born, how you were raise affects how you see the world.  It defines what we expect from life.  It shapes who we are as people.

The third order is Psychological.

This is a product of the other two, plus genetics.  It is determined as much by our parents and where we come from.  It influences our ambition, temperament, disposition, attitude and complexes.

Rounding out Your Characters

A character is the product of his physical make-up and his environment.  We continually respond to our inner needs and the external influences around us.  We often attempt to reject our instincts and influence in order to change, but we usually fail to escape them.

In making your characters 3-dimensional, you are making them unique and compelling.

Character Choices

Anything that happens in your play with come from your characters’ choices.  Those choices must be strong enough to drive your play’s premise to its conclusion.

That drive is the result of the three aspects of your character coming to fruition.

It is your job as the playwright to show that your character has exhausted every  other possibility before making the choices that lead them to their final situation.

We must feel like your characters, based on who they are, had no other choice but make the decisions that they do.

Because all conflict grows from a characters background, the character’s inherent contradictions make them do what they do.

Through these characters the premise of your play is demonstrated.

A play is a moment in time.  You must know who your characters are before the play starts and after it ends.  You must know your characters not only as they are today but as they were before your script started and as they will be years from now.

Character and Conflict

A character stands revealed through conflict.

Conflict Begins with a Decision.

A decision is made because of who the characters are.  The characters are who you have chosen to fulfill your premise.

The character’s decision sets in motion the decisions of his adversary.

Each decision results in another decision, which propels the play to its ultimate destination, which proves your premise.

This is the change in your story: characters start with one set of emotions and conditions and end at the opposite.

As your characters move relentlessly from one state of mind to another, they are forced to change, grow, adapt and develop in order to achieve their goal.

A weak character cannot care the conflict of a play.

You need characters who are willing to fight for their convictions.  They must have the strength  and stamina to carry this fight to its logical end.

Driven by their needs, characters will force the issue in question until they are beaten or reach their goal.

There is always a long chain of circumstances that lead to a character acting out.

Strong characters are characters who have the power to put up a fight.  Every living creature is capable of doing anything if the conditions are strong enough.

In a good play, a character changes on every page in a logical course of growth, leading to the character being beaten or reaching his goal.

The Protagonist (The Pivotal Character)

Without the protagonist there is no play.  S/he is the one with the clearest want.

They must want it so badly that they will destroy or be destroyed in the effort to attain their want.  They must want it more than life.

A good pivotal character must have something absolutely fundamental and vital at stake.

The pivotal character is the driving force of the play, not because he decided to be one.  He becomes one because some inner or outer necessity forces him to act.  There is something at stake for him – honor, wealth, health, protection, vengeance or passion.

The Antagonist

Anyone who opposes the pivotal character becomes an antagonist.

Without the antagonist there is no play.  S/he is the one with the second most clear want.

Like the protagonist, the antagonist  must want it so badly that they will destroy or be destroyed in the effort to attain their want.  They must want it more than life.

Also a pivotal character, a good antagonist must have something absolutely fundamental and vital at stake.

The antagonist is the opposite and essential the driving force of the play.  She or he becomes one because some inner or outer necessity forces him or her to act.  Like the protagonist, the antagonist has something at stake – honor, wealth, health, protection, vengeance or passion.

When creating your protagonist and antagonist, remember that their needs and wants must be absolutely fundamental and vital.

Next week, we’ll look at how these two opposing forces work in concert against each other to drive the plot of your script.




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