Monday, February 15, 2010

Scene Structure Part III – Characters

Part of an ongoing series on Scene Structure.


So far we’ve talked about Setting, that your scene needs to take place somewhere, and Theme, that your Scene needs to matter to the rest of the story. But of course, your scene is going to require some Characters.

Let me start with a Question.

If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a scene?


Answer: Not unless it falls on the bad guy. Or onto my bedroom, as in the case in the picture above. (from Dec. 2006)

Today we’re not going to get into the myriad aspects of what makes good Conflict, but let’s talk about a few other aspects of Character and how it relates to Scenes. First of all, every scene contains a Protagonist. This is not necessarily the “good guy” or the main character. In terms of scene, this is the main actor of a given scene. Even in 1st Person POV*, if the narrator is talking about what happens to someone else, that someone else becomes the Protagonist of that particular scene. However, a good rule of thumb is that the Protagonist usually is the POV character—the  “person of interest” if you will.

A couple things identify a Protagonist in a specific scene:

  1. The Protagonist has at least one goal for the scene worth acting upon. A Protagonist does not let others dictate his immediate future.
  2. Those goals drive the Scene and the Conflict.
  3. We know enough about this person to understand why he’s here, although we may not know his motivations. If not, these reasons should become apparent. If you include a scene with a clockmaker trying to fill his quota, then he never shows up again, ask yourself if that scene was really necessary.
  4. The Protagonist acts, not just thinking, observing, or passively participating. If she’s sitting in a coffee shop working on a term paper and there’s a hold-up, then make sure this hold-up affects her goals. Maybe she acts small to avoid notice. Maybe she argues with them. Maybe they try to steal her laptop with the term paper and she goes ballistic. But if the scene is, “while she’s sitting there, robbers come in, hold up the barista, steal her laptop, and she thinks about lunch,” then you might have an issue.
  5. The Protagonist has a certain mood or emotional state. “Glad to be in the scene,” is not a valid state. Happy, sad, curious, concerned, frightened, envious, lustful, disgusted, what is their state? Is it clear?

Character Scene Structure Goals

  • Include at least one character acting on their goals. Without a character, you are just writing exposition, which can be interesting but it’s not a scene.
  • Characters must come alive on the page. Gestures, expressions, speech patterns, clothing, body language, inner thoughts, all these things can be used to reveal your character’s goals and current mood. If you were observing the scene, what would you notice about the character? If your character is the POV character, what would they notice about themselves? Others?
  • Her actions must match her mood and goals. Characters act for specific reasons. If your character’s dog just died, she’s probably not going to be that excited about going out on a date with a stranger. She’s going to act mopey and depressed, and her goal may be to exit the date as soon as possible.
  • Stories are about people who go out and do things and learn from their mistakes. Whereas most of us spend our lives sitting in front of the TV, reading books, or farting around on the Internet, fictional characters live eventful lives and go out and do interesting things and meet interesting people. So a scene where your character watches TV or reads or plays Farmville is not going to cut it. Cut it.

Non Goals

  • Don’t explicitly explain motivations and backstory or write detailed character profiles in your scene. Let the character’s action speak for themselves, and only fill in backstory when absolutely necessary.
  • Every character in your scene will have differing goals, even when they agree. This also helps distinguish your characters from one another. If you find you have two characters who essentially want the same thing, consider combining them into one character.
  • Avoid writing character actions “because this needs to happen now.” Keep your characters consistent, but not completely predictable because that’s boring. Make them have unique approaches to solving their problems, but their goals should be fairly universal, like eating, making friends, avoiding zombies, etc.
  • Reacting ≠ Acting. Even if your character is being chased by evil hordes of zombies, give him a specific escape goal like climbing to a roof or reaching the zombie-proof über-tank. Sitting there getting your feelings hurt is not acting. Sitting there getting your feelings hurt and plotting sweet revenge is better.

What are your characters trying to accomplish in a given Scene? How do you show the reader?

*POV Point Of View. We’ll get into POV in another installment.


  1. Great pointers, these are really good to keep in mind, especially as I start my next novel.


  2. Thanks for the pointers (nice tree!). I don't remember who said it, but they said if the character sticks her gum under the mantle at the beginning of the book, then that gum better make another appearance later on.

  3. Great stuff Andrew - thanks for sharing ;o)

  4. As always, you make me think way more about the process of writing than I ever want to. You have been good for my writing career!

  5. This has become a very good resource for me. I need to start attending the meetup again. I have to start working on my Nano WIP

  6. I try to have a specific scene goal in mind when I'm revising. Not so much when I'm writing. My characters are usually engaged in something - if only internally - and a point, at least is made.

    Since my novel is highly emotional, I try to "show" the goals through emotion; some narrative, some action, but I think my best writing strength is in dialogue. Hard to do when only the MC is in the scene. I hope I'm succeeding anyway.

    These are all good points to remember. Lately I haven't been working on my own stuff, but I think I could use this to help with my critiques. And when I am writing on my novels, I often come here for writing advice and encouragement. Thanks for these postings.


  7. Thanks folks! Hope it helps!

    @DH: I'm going to end this series (at some point) with a checklist people can use to evaluate the strength of a given scene, even when critiquing others. The main takeaway of this post is that every scene should have at least one motivated character.


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