Creating more ‘dramatic’ characters

Carpenter photo_WEB gifBy Sally Carpenter

When I began writing in earnest, I was more interested in playwrighting than penning novels. As a kid, I checked out plays from the local library to read instead of novels. Plays read fast (knock one off in an hour!), had lot of white space on the page, and got to the action immediately. Books had hundreds of pages of close-set type, long passages of boring description and slow moving plots.

Now that I’m entrenched in writing cozies, the skills I learned as a playwright are still serving me well. One of the primary tools for character development that I picked up from acting class is major meanings. The following is an over-simplification of the process.

Every person has major meanings in her life. These are the two to three things the person needs to have a fulfilling life. Major meanings are tangible items, not abstract ideas like joy, peace, security and safety (although the major meanings might provide such things.)

The major meanings create tension among each other. When one major meaning is realized, another meaning may be neglected.

An example: a middle age female executive has the major meanings of career advancement, family and sobriety. However, climbing the corporate ladder leaves little time to spend with family. Business lunches and networking parties with an abundance of booze flowing might tempt her sobriety. She may forgo a job promotion so she can care for an aging parent.

Watch the sparks fly when two characters have different major meaning. The wife values peace and quiet but hubby, who loves auto racing, wants his buddies over to watch the Indy 500 on the big screen TV. Resolving the conflict to everyone’s satisfaction (or not—that’s when the murder occurs) is the stuff of good storytelling.

For the writer, major meanings are often not planned in advance and may pop up as the manuscript progresses. The author should never state major meanings outright but let the reader discover them.

When an actor approaches a play, she reads the script until she finds her character’s major meanings and then she internalizes them. She imagines herself as the character living out her major meanings and life history. When the meanings are ingrained, the actress goes on stage and, as she says a line or listens to the other characters, the right feeling and reaction will occur because the major meanings will spring to the surface naturally and in the moment. This provides a more natural performance than for the actor to plan to advance how she will say or react to a line.

 In my writing I often imagine myself in the character’s place or “see” the character acting out the scene in my mind. If I’m stuck for what the character will do or say next, I let the major meanings simmer and the character will do the right thing. (Writing is harder work than acting. An actor only had to build one character whereas the author has to do the work for several!)

To put this idea into practice, take a favorite novel, play or movie and find the protagonist’s major meanings. How do these meanings cause the character to make the choices she does? How do the major meanings of the other characters, cause conflict for the heroine?


16 thoughts on “Creating more ‘dramatic’ characters

  1. Good post, Sally. It’s great to see how skills developed in other arenas further the work of writing. It’s harder, as you say, to find major meanings for a group of characters in a novel than to find them for one character on stage, but the skills are the same.


    1. Scripts are easer to work with because they’re shorter, fewer scenes and the action is more “concentrated” into a shorter timespan. Novels tend to be longer and bigger in scope with more scenes and characters. One must “dig” more to analyze a character in a novel.


  2. I’ve been having problems with dialogue. I’ve received reviews that my characters are stiff. I believe you article will offer me much needed help. Now I just need an article on dialogue and I’ll be all set.


    1. Susanne, if you have trouble with dialogue, I recommend you real play scripts. Since plays are all talk, the characters must use dialogue to reveal everything and carry the plot. Also, read your dialogue aloud to hear if it sounds natural, or have other people read your dialogue and you listen.


  3. Sally, This is a great other way to look at deep point of view. I also go into the POV of the character who is the main character in the scene and see, hear, and think everything in their point of view and their major meaning. It’s interesting to see how other writers approach how they write.


    1. Thanks, Paty. What I describe is from the Sanford Meisner acting school. There’s a variety of acting techniques and theories around; actors pick what works for them.


  4. Nice post. I’ve never thought about character development in quite that way. I intend to look at my WIP to see if I’ve given my character adequate major meanings. Thanks.


    1. Hi Sandra. For me, the major meanings appear after I’ve written about the character for several chapters. It’s hard to start out with defining the meanings before I see how the character behaves.


  5. I love reading about how you integrate your acting and playwriting background into writing mysteries. (I’m a former actor, too, as you may recall.) It’s so true about getting into character for all the characters. Great post.


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