With One Scene

Often, a writer can get away with establishing a character slowly, over time. In this scene, emphasizing this quality. In another scene, another one. A slow, gradual process. A GM with a long-term enough plan, or a player who wants to dole out the information bit by bit, might be able to do the same.

But for some people, there just isn’t time. Instead, they have to get the character across in a shorter time, and may have to cram as much information as possible into a scene, an action, or maybe a vignette.

But how?

First, make sure you know what you want to get across with the scene or action. If you’re in a hurry and doing something short, it’s probably just going to be one single quality. If you’ve got time to plan, and/or the scene is longer, you might be able to squeeze a few more in. Either way, whether you’ve got more qualities or not, make sure there is one quality you are absolutely going to get across.

Once you’ve got that quality, use it to determine the overall direction of the scene or action you’re using. What behavior, event or combination thereof could get across this aspect of the character? If that question has more than one possible answer, which one either gets across the aspect the most efficiently, or gets across the greatest number of aspects you want to get across? Does your character have any suggestions? At first, all you need is an overall skeleton.

Got the skeleton? Detail it out. If you don’t already have context, try to provide some. If all you know is the kind of situation, figure out which other characters are involved, usually by who’s reasonable to have on scene. If it seems like the overall scene is detached from the setting around it, try to factor in a little more world. Think about causes—how did we get to this scene, and how is that going to affect how it plays out? Likewise, think about consequences, whether the character would think of the same consequences you are, how the character would react to thinking of whatever consequences she could think of, and if you’ve got control over the world what the consequences would actually be and how they’ll be dealt with.

For people doing this from the player’s seat, rather than as a writer or a GM, there are of course complications. The first of these is not being able to design the entire scene, just the character’s reactions. Another is the fact that it’s often going to be on the fly; you might have no idea if a situation you have the perfect response to is ever going to come up, and there’s always the chance of a situation sneaking up on you and smacking you over the head. Neither of these is a deal-breaker, though, particularly for someone good in improv; many of my best character-establishing moments have been completely unplanned. Worst that happens, if you don’t freeze up, is the character establishes herself, and you have to come back later and figure out what it all meant.

There’s no guarantee it’ll work, but if done well, you should be able to get across a lot of information in a very short sequence.


  1. UZ says:

    Hm… consider the introduction of Brand’s character in “The Hobbit”. He only appears something like three times in the book, and the scene where he shoots Smaug is actually the second.

    The first introduction he has is actually through someone else’s description of him, where they basically describe him as dour, mean, no fun and a general buzzkill. This of course sets up his second appearance, where everyone else runs away like lemmings and Brand stands on a burning dock in the middle of a lake, shooting arrows at Smaug and stopping to soliliquize grimly as only the dourest can. This actually follows a pretty strong theme in that story cycle, which is that the most noticeable characteristic of humans is that they are depressing.

    BUT, it’s worth noting that the reason why we knew who Brand was at all during the “Black Arrow” scene is because we heard someone else whining about how he’s no fun. It was a pretty good introduction, considering that he really was kind of a minor character after all.

    Now, I have a (semi) unrelated question.

    When I have a large group of characters interacting (more than four, say), and a scene relies on their interactions or reactions, the solution I often employ is to write the scene almost like poetry, ordering the reactions to form a sort of repeating pattern with occasional breaks to keep it from being too structured-looking. Obviously in any such scene there will be dominant actors or reactors, but when I’m relying on the entire group to carry a series of varied reactions I want to address all of them regularly.

    Do you know of any other way of doing this? I’m trying to find another technique to provide a little variety.

  2. Ravyn says:

    ….wow, I think I’m going to need to write a couple conversations with that many participants in order to check what I do. I hadn’t really thought about that. Answer forthcoming (eventually). Probably in post form.

    You make a good point about Brand’s introduction (and now I need to go reread The Hobbit. Pity my copy’s in Oregon). Though that also depends on only having a few people pointed out in the same way, I think, since if you get too many of those at once, the name-recognition gets a lot more difficult.

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