Lajos Egri is (was) an American-Hungarian writer who talked a lot about making characters believable. He came up with an approach which he called the ‘tridimensional character’, building personality out of three primary pillars:
Every object has three dimensions: depth, height, width. Human beings have an additional three dimensions: physiology; sociology; psychology. Without a knowledge of these three dimensions we cannot appraise a human being. It is not enough, in your study of a man, to know if he is rude, polite, religious, atheistic, moral, degenerate. You must know why. ~ Lajos Egri, The Art of Dramatic Writing
It feels to me like Egri is touching on the nature-nurture debate. His tridimensional approach builds the character out of appearance (nature) and background environment (nurture) as the two foundation pillars, and the impact these have had upon the psyche gives us unique characteristics. I completely agree with this approach – there is always a ‘why’ behind someone’s behaviour, and the ‘whys’ give us the keys to the character.
The Importance of Body
I naturally ascribe much more strongly to the ‘nurture’ side of the debate, but Egri makes the point that physicality has an important impact on the psyche. Gender affects how you are treated (not going into the politics of feminism on a writing blog, but yes, this is still very true); aesthetic appearance and how close it is to the cultural ideal has a massive impact on both happiness and treatment; disease, deformity and so on impact not only perception but also abilities. In the 2000 film Unbreakable Samuel L. Jackson’s character says the following about comic books:
See the villain’s eyes? They’re larger than the other characters’. They insinuate a slightly skewed perspective on how they see the world. Just off normal.
Egri set out a list of ‘bone structure’ questions for character creation, which he divided up into these three pillars. I don’t tend to use lists like this in character creation, at least not to start with, but every now and then I find it’s quite a useful exercise to run through one once I’ve started a project. It usually teaches me something I didn’t know about the character, even if it isn’t necessarily something important (like the fact they like to watch trashy daytime TV on their days off – something I doubt will ever come into the story). Anyway, for reference, here’s Egri’s list. I’d be interested to hear what you guys make of it.
- Height and weight
- Colour of hair, eyes, skin
- Appearance: good-looking, over- or underweight, clean, neat, pleasant, untidy. Shape of head, face, limbs.
- Defects: deformities, abnormalities, birthmarks. Diseases.
- Class: lower, middle, upper.
- Occupation: type of work, hours of work, income, condition of work, union or nonunion, attitude towards organisation, suitability for work.
- Education: amount, kind of schools, marks, favourite subjects, poorest subjects, aptitudes.
- Home life: parents living, earning power, orphan, parents separated or divorced, parents’ habits, parents’ mental development, parents’ vices, neglect. Character’s marital status.
- Race, nationality
- Place in community: leader among friends, clubs, sports.
- Political affiliations
- Amusements, hobbies: books, newspapers, magazines he reads.
- Sex life, moral standards
- Personal premise, ambition
- Frustrations, chief disappointments
- Temperament: choleric, easygoing, pessimistic, optimistic.
- Attitude towards life: resigned, militant, defeatist.
- Complexes: obsessions, inhibitions, superstitions, phobias.
- Extrovert, introvert, ambivert.
- Abilities: languages, talents.
- Qualities: imagination, judgement, taste, poise.