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Character arcs, texture and realism

My answer to the riddle of character development


One method that I have found works well not only personally, but with my students as well, is amalgamating improv with character generation. It is a technique that Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) and Tom Waits (American singer-songwriter, composer, and actor) both use in varying degrees.

The method is to create a role and act out that role. If it helps you can have the dialogue out loud - in some very enthusiastic measures you can even dress up and hold the dialogue in a mirror. The idea is to see each character as an individual, and portray the subtle nuances which make a person a person. The true challenge is going beyond cliches, stereotypes, personas, and physical descriptions - these are easy traps to fall into.

Gilbert argues that she often has full on discussions with her characters and will go to the extreme of yelling at them “What do you want?” or “How will you get yourself out of this now?” - specifically when she writes them into a corner.

Lastly, to create the full arc of a character you need three essential ingredients: 1) motivation, 2) experience, and 3) texture. Akin to Stanislavski's "system" or “method acting” the questions you need to ask when writing a scene or a portrayal include: 1) motivation - Given a situation how and why would “I” or the “character” act/react?, 2) experience - What experiences do I have as the author that are similar to the character’s and what experiences are different?, and 3) What emotional or psychological ranges, depths, tones, moods etc. affect the character?


Sometimes the best way to understand a concept or process is to dissect an existing, successful element. What stories or movies demonstrate strong character arcs? Why and how?

Once you analyze other arcs how can use these arcs as inspiration for your own characters? Can you apply the methods above to arcs from stories that you enjoy? Can you manipulate the existing frameworks in other works to suit your stories overall plot?


It is a rich and rewarding experience to create fully three-dimensional characters. However, the error novice writers often make is either casting too many two-dimensional characters or not enough. There is a reason there are stock characters. Shakespeare and the classic playwrights from Antiquity used stock characters to juxtapose against the protagonist or antagonist. Why? The richness of a three-dimensional character is only as strong as the character’s comparison to the backdrop of the flatter, supporting cast.

Context is what creates true texture. Imagine a couple discussing their most intimate and emotionally challenging issues of their relationship. If they are doing this in the privacy of the bedroom vs. in the middle of the mall at the top of their lungs, changes everything we know about the characters.

Herbert A. Simon (political scientist, economist, sociologist, psychologist, and computer scientist) argued that an ant only seems complex because of the environment. His example is of an ant walking across the beach in a varied, zigzagging, and complicated pattern. The ant is a rather dumb creature and only demonstrates this complexity out of necessity. The ant is only moving left and right, forward and back, it is the beach which presents the challenges which gives the ant’s path a sense of complexity. Put the same ant on a smooth tile floor and it will walk in a straight line.

Context makes the character, not the other way around. If the character seems flat, add challenges in the environment to bring out the complexity. 

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