What makes a creative person come alive

Write creatively: design lively characters

What makes a good figure and how to develop it step by step

Regardless of whether you are reading a novel or a thriller, watching a film or listening to a radio play, it is the characters acting in it that captivate the recipient. But how do you write it? We give practical, actionable tips for lively figures.

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Regardless of whether you are reading a novel or a thriller, watching a film or listening to a radio play, it is the characters acting in it that captivate the recipient.

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We go through the material with them and want to know how things will go on with them. How the story ends for them. We suffer with them when they challenge their fate in a drama or even a tragedy, quarrel with it or, in the case of tragedy, fail because of it. In comedy we laugh with and about them and we cheer with them when they fight for their lives or look for a murderer in a crime or thriller, whether in a book or on the screen.

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This close bond between the recipient and the fictional character only succeeds if the character is convincing. When it captivates. Fascinated. Or you can rub yourself against it. When it is not a template, but three-dimensional and rounded.

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As an example, three figures in advance that I have particularly liked lately:

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  • On the one hand, there is Stieg Larsson's rugged, brilliant heroine Lisbeth Salander, who, despite her strength, is also a victim.

  • For the second Karen Duves Alex Herwig, the protagonist of her novel "Taxi", a completely incapable of making decisions, actually a fearful figure who says: "I knew that I could endure anything. That was my strength. I had never succeeded in anything decisive in my life, but I could endure everything." And she has to endure. And in the process she develops an amazing "toughness".

  • Third was Jon Ewermann, played by Robert Atzorn in the ZDF film "Im Gehege", an arrogant, emotionally cold guy who finds himself in a mania for love and walks over corpses in the process.

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All three characters have a bunch of character traits and quirks. You rub against them, at the same time you like them. Except for Jon Ewermann. One follows this with the fascination of horror in the descent. But of course there are also characters that you love. John Irving, for example, has created many incredibly lovable characters.

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How to invent and write such and other characters is the focus of this article. Let's start with a few very important theoretical basics and then get to know very practical exercises.


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  • Three dimensions cut a fine figure

    When we talk about three-dimensional figures today, we mean rounded, lively figures. The concept of the three-dimensional figure originally comes from Lajos Egri's standard work "The Art of Dramatic Writing". For Egri, the figure actually consists of three dimensions. These three dimensions form the basis of successful figures. First there is the physiological dimension. It describes physical details such as gender, height, hair, race, etc.

    The second, the sociological dimension, makes statements about whether the figure is poor or rich, whether he has a high, average or low level of education, what class he belongs to, whether he is single or a member of an extended family, etc.

    The third dimension is the psychological level of description. It not only describes the basic mood of a character, namely whether he copes with his life sad, happy, angry or indifferent, but also his neuroses, fears or psychoses and other psychological peculiarities. The psychological dimension is partly a result of the interplay of the physiological and sociological dimensions.

    As an example, I'll quickly invent a figure here. I call her Mr Radish. So: Mr. Radish is a small, almost gracefully built man around fifty with sand-colored, neatly parted short hair. He wears glasses with thin, gold rims. His eyes cannot be seen behind it. He only wears suits. These suits are a bit shabby, but if you look closely you can see that they must have been of excellent quality at one point or another. Mr. Radich is so reserved that he seems like a scam. If you meet him in the stairwell, he steps noticeably far to the side. He is very polite, but his politeness is similar to a tank. He speaks softly and expresses himself selectively. Mr. Radish is a chain smoker.

    With this description I have covered Egris three dimensions for the first time. You can and will make the description much more detailed if you want to use the character in a novel, film or radio play, but that's enough for us at this point.

  • Two additional dimensions cut an even better figure

    Many advisors limit themselves to Egri's three dimensions mentioned above. But with John Vorhaus, author of the book "Handwerk Humor", a book aimed at screenwriters, there are two additional dimensions to be discovered that are extremely important for a successful character. Even if you don't want her to be in a comedy.

    If you observe your fellow human beings, your friends, acquaintances and colleagues, you will notice that each of them (unconsciously) looks at his life under a kind of premise. That can be "mainly cheap". Or "Everyone is against me". Or "It was clear that this would happen to me". Or "everything will be fine" etc.

    John Vorhaus calls this the "attitude". His first important addition to the physiological, sociological and psychological dimension is precisely this attitude, because figures also have an attitude towards their life - if they are three-dimensional figures.

    Characters with an attitude have the advantage that the author knows at all times and in each scene how the character will react according to their character. In technical terms, this means that the figure remains "in character".

    Let's take little Mr. Radish. Mr.Rettich is convinced that nothing is given to him in life. That is his attitude. With her he goes (unconsciously) into every situation of his life.

    The second important addition is what Vorhaus calls the "two sides of the coin". Every three-dimensional figure is a whole set of character traits. But every figure has a distinctive character trait. This can be, for example, naivety or distrust, ambition or friendliness etc.

    The "two sides of the coin" now consist in the fact that such salient character traits always have positive and negative consequences for the figure. In concrete terms: a very naive character believes everything that is told to her. She gets involved with everything and everyone. The good thing is that she is very personable and goes along with a lot. On the other hand, everything and everyone will find it on the glue. So a naive character is also a perfect victim at the same time.

    A suspicious figure questions everything. You can't fool her into an X for a U. However, it will also not be accessible to well-meaning people and alienate them. A suspicious character will not engage in other characters or adventures. For this she "pays" with loneliness and a certain static in her life.

    In this way, for each character trait there are positive effects and negative effects on the character who has it. The "two sides of the coin".

    Z. B. Mr. Radich's most prominent quality is his politeness, it could well be that, because of his politeness, he finds himself in situations he never wanted to get into. Simply because he was too polite to refuse or refuse to do anything.

  • All extreme cases

    Successful fictional characters are larger than life. In contrast to most real people, each of whom has a special characteristic, but who are overall quite average, a successful, three-dimensional figure that captivates the recipient should always be larger than life. So the most beautiful of the beautiful, the cruelest of the cruel, the most disturbed of the disturbed, or in the case of Mr. B. the grayest of the gray. Or the most polite of the polite. Our little Mr. Radish becomes larger than life because we take his salient quality and blow it up almost into the grotesque.

    If we look at Karen Duves Alex Herwig, she is the most inhibited of the decision-makers. Or rose Larsson's Lisbeth Salander. She's also a pretty smart one, but also and above all the most rugged of the rugged.

  • Contradiction, please

    Every reader, every viewer and every listener has met them before: the cliché figures. Whore with a heart, tough guy with a soft core. For a while, scripts swarmed with young, beautiful Polish Marias who were studying German and who financed their studies with prostitution.

    If you take the whore's heart or the tough guy the soft core, then you would have scored well against the cliché.

    Basically a good method to build the characters clichéd and even more three-dimensional is to find contradictions in their characters for them.

    Example: In the case of Mr.Rettich, you might think that his favorite pastime is tidying up his apartment and keeping everything scrupulously clean. That's not true. Mr. Radich collects Coca Cola promotional items. And very special. Namely those that were not intended for the European market.

    Is not there? But. I once met someone myself who had this hobby. Otherwise he had no resemblance to Herr Rettich.

    So Mr.Rettich is now an ardent hunter and collector of these items. Whether glasses, figurines, stickers or CDs and singles with Cola songs, he collects everything. And roams all the Internet and other stock exchanges in search of these things. For his passion for collecting, he develops activities that we would not have believed him capable of, and sometimes even goes overboard.

    The contradiction has to fit the figure. Despite all the contradictions, it has to be credible. I don't think, for example, that Mr.Rettich would make a credible Death Metal fan. A good, contradicting character trait is neither artificial nor implausible.

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So far it was about theory the three-dimensional or rounded figure. So in theory everything is clear. But practical? The following section deals with different ways to find out about your characters.

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The very first remedy, which is also mentioned in all guides, is to write a biography for the character.

James N. Fry recommends writing the biography from a first-person perspective in his book How To Write A Damn Good Novel. This has the advantage that the author can slip into the figure's skin sooner.

For Mr. Rettich this would mean: I was born on March 3rd, 1955 in Bremen. My mother Ilse gave me the first name Hartmut. I don't know my father. I am an illegitimate child. It was very important to my mother that I was always better than other children. I should be more good, better at school, more polite and more successful. At the same time, I shouldn't be noticed. Even today I hear her "If you notice you have complexes". And I have to say she was successful. Largely...

All advisors recommend that the character biography is worked out as detailed as possible: trauma, fears, wishes, motivations, everything should be laid down in this biography.

A very personal comment on this. Perhaps not many authors feel the same way, but it doesn't quite work for me as an author, because it's a biography that comes completely from a bird's eye view. Of course, it is important to know a lot about a character before you start your novel, radio play or film, and to put that into writing. With too much fixation, however, you will quickly find that the figure quickly makes it clear to you that a lot of what you have considered for her does not apply at all. That she may have completely different problems, strengths and character traits than what was written down in the biography.

Personally, when inventing a character, I always start with rough features. And preferably those that seem important to me for the story that I want to tell. I will quickly illustrate this with the example of Anton Kummer, one of my favorite characters from my novel "Novembertod". First of all, I needed a photographer for the novel. I wanted this photographer to be childlike, maybe even a child, and to take photos with a childlike passion. Since the novel is set in 1918, it also needed a good reason why this young photographer owns a camera. The outlines of eight-year-old Anton Kummer slowly peeled off the paper. Anton is a half-orphan. He lives in completely impoverished Wedding. He has been fascinated by photography ever since he observed the photographer Willy Römer, who is a historically authenticated figure, photographing a street scene in Weddingen.

Then suddenly other parts of his biography were added: He got the camera because he was serving as an assistant and erotic boy for a neighbor who made his living with erotic photographs, which were strictly forbidden at the time. The neighbor falls in the war. Anton makes his equipment his own and becomes a chronicler of the November Revolution.

While I was writing, I noticed that my Anton was too young for the tasks and adventures he had to endure. So he turned fourteen. But he was only child-sized because he suffered from rickets, a disease that was quite common for slum dwellers at the time. Anton was disadvantaged, a loner, but a friendly and very creative loner.

So the more I worked with him, the closer I got to him. I learned that because of his background, he wasn't the most self-confident, was shy when it came to people, but at the same time daring when it came to photography. In the end I noticed a quality about him that can best be described as "wait and see when things get tricky". This quality should cost him his life.

But now this Anton Kummer had apparently become such a three-dimensional and lovable figure that his death unleashed a storm of indignation among my test readers. Without ever having written an advance biography for him. I bowed to the furious protest: Anton escaped his fate, even if only narrowly and seriously injured.

In a nutshell: Writing a biography is a very good and legitimate means of "discovering" a character. A means that every author, if not always, should try out for himself at least a few times. But many of the characteristics and peculiarities of characters often only become apparent when you are working with them.

Personally, after I've pounded a few rough stakes in terms of behavior and behavior, I need to see a character act and interact with other characters in order to get to know them.

The next exercise shows how to find out about your characters by engaging them in action. It's called "The Complaint".

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Something happens that the character finds absolutely unbearable. She goes off and complains. The author takes notes.

Here again Mr.Rettich comes into play: Mr.Rettich's neighbor, who in turn is a great friend of Death Metal music, has turned up her favorite CD so loud that Mr.Rettich's Coca-Cola devotional objects clink in her showcases. He goes unhappy and complains. He will politely ring the doorbell and, if someone opens the door at all, politely ask to turn the music down. He'll even politely explain why it's too loud and ask for your understanding.

As an author, you will of course write down this scene in great detail. What exactly does your character say, how does he say it and what does he do. What do you adversary say and do? And, most importantly, whether your character is successful with her complaint. Is she getting what she wants? And if so, how? If not, how does she take her defeat?

It is important that the character fights in this exercise as well as later in his book, radio play or film with all his means at his disposal. Frey calls this "acting with their maximum capacity". It is clear that e.g. For example, a shy, reserved person chooses other means than a member of the Russian mafia, or someone who has so much charm that he can make the polar ice caps melt away for good. A Lisbeth Salander solves the problem differently than an Alex Herwig.

But there are also ways and means for the shy one to achieve their goals. It is the author's job to identify these ways and means.

Mr Rettich, for example, could write a letter to the property manager. Or he could, if he had a sneaky, anarchic move, secretly tape his neighbor's door shut with superglue and, after she cursed her way out of her taped door, whisper a polite "You just had to turn the music down".

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Public versus private behavior

Answering the question of how the character behaves in public as opposed to private life is another way of discovering new characteristics in her. The exercise simply consists of writing down three things. First of all: How does the character behave in public. Second: what does the character do, what does it look like, how does it behave when it is at home unobserved. Third: What does she do when visitors come unannounced?

This exercise is a tremendous help in discovering hidden traits.

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Another way to approach the characters in order to make them three-dimensional is the interview. The author interviews his character as if he were a journalist. He asks all the questions that he always wanted to have answered but had not dared to ask beforehand. And the figure answers.

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Description options

In literature, the author has the opportunity to describe characters or the character traits of the characters by means of their inner monologue or a more or less authorial description of the author. This is also possible in radio plays. The author can have the character describe himself.

As an example again, Mr.Rettich: Whenever I look in the mirror, I see gray. A gray oval stares at me, with small eyes that lie deep in the sockets and look even smaller through my glasses ...

Another character describes Mr. Rettich: I must have met him a thousand times on the stairwell. But he was invisible to me. Until the day the house thing happened. That's when I became aware of him for the first time. Small, fragile, severely parted ...

The narrator can describe Mr.Rettich: He was a short man, gray and of exquisite politeness that surrounded him like armor ...

The possibilities of describing a character are almost endless. Another very important way of describing characters is to let them act. In the film, which does not have the narrative possibilities of literature and is also a strictly visual medium, the conveyance of information about the origin of a character, their inner state, their (prominent) character traits and their life context is almost exclusively via their behavior in the situations in which she comes. The author can e.g. For example, don't just say that Mr.Rettich is single, he has to find a way to show this state of affairs. For example, by letting him go up the stairs with a single beer, a small packet of bread and a small packet of cheese in the shopping net. All description levels must be "served" visually. Help z. B. the clothes that the figure wears (social description level). The way she moves in public says a lot about her social background as well as her psychological state (psychological description level). And the fact that the figure is male or female, tall or short, fat or thin, covers the physiological level of description.

Possibly there are already hints about posture: Does the figure do everything with a certain caution? Does she check everything she does? Then she is certainly not someone who walks through the world with too much trust. If she acts spontaneously and hands-on, she has a certain basic trust, etc.
In the teaching material on the topic of script writing, which you can find in the self-study area of ​​akademie.de, you will learn about other possibilities to get from the pure description of the character to the picture and the action and thus make the three-dimensional figure even more vivid. How to use this knowledge for prose texts (including many other tricks and tips), you can learn in my seminars.

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Anyone who has read this far has not only got to know Lajos Egris three dimensions describing the figure (physiological, sociological, psychological dimension), but also the addition of two more to these three dimensions, namely the posture and the two sides of the coin of the salient character trait. Both additional dimensions were introduced by John Vorhaus. Perhaps one or the other reader has already played through the practical exercises that help you get hold of your characters. So it should work with the figure finding.

I have saved one of the most important points for last: The most rounded figure is useless if it only crouches passively in its little room. It has to take action, because it and its activity are the cause of the story. Unless high external pressure compels them to take action, they must have what James N. Frey calls "dominant passion". As a result of his secret desire to get noticed, Mr. Rettich's dominant passion is to build up the largest collection in his collection area. For this he becomes active. Jon Ewermann's dominant passion is his personified mania for love, Mrs. Schwertfeger. To the bitter end. Lisbeth Salander doesn't want to be a victim. Anton Kummer wants to become a great press photographer. They all pursue their passion. And that is what gives rise to their stories, which their authors only have to write down.

And an actually passive figure like Alex Herwig? Who can withstand everything according to their dominant passion, decides nothing? And thereby end up in the most incredible situations? These situations increase the external pressures on them and increase their internal pressures. And the reader wonders how long she'll be able to endure this. So stay tuned to her.

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Another tip: A good figure takes a little time. Don't despair when she slowly steps out of the shadows. And finally be happy if she is not like that and does not do what the author dictates. Because then she really begins to live.