Basic Flash-Characterization Exercise: The Dragonbreath-Style Summary

One of the things I’ve been discussing with my boyfriend for a while are tips for him in quickly generating background or semi-important characters. I was thinking about this a while back, and through some bizarre pattern of associative memory, I started thinking about the cover summaries on Ursula Vernon’s Dragonbreath books. (No, this post is not sponsored. Yes, I read these books. I’m quite fond of them.) The last few volumes, the back-cover summary has always gone something like this: “Danny Dragonbreath isn’t [quality]. He doesn’t [thing that would probably come in handy in this plotline]. But if you’re/you need [insert conflict for that installment], Danny Dragonbreath will [insert action that could fit with conflict and/or is relatively easy to draw].”

Is it just me, or do we have a nice concise character summary—or, possibly more importantly, character summary as related to a storyline—right here? It discusses the character’s role in the story in terms of things he’ll definitely do and problems he or someone else is likely to run into—and even better, discusses the character partially in terms of his limitations. I think that’s the coolest part: to construct one of these, you have to figure out what the character isn’t before you can talk about what he is or does.

The exercise itself is simple: just fill in the brackets.

“[Character] isn’t [quality]. He/she doesn’t [thing that could potentially be useful in either common situations or this one in particular]. But if you are/need [the character's narrative role, or something cool the character has done or will likely end up doing, preferably related to the previous two blanks], [Character] will [appropriate action].”

Pretty straightforward, right?

I’ve found two uses for this so far. The first use, for which it was originally intended, is as a character design shortcut; if you can sum up a character and his role in the story with one of these sentences, he’s probably ready to at least try a conversation onstage. The second is a way of analyzing one of your major characters. Try doing this for the same character four or five times (or more), and see how many times you can do it without repeating a limitation or how often your limitations end up being rewordings of each other. If you can do more than four or five, you’ve probably managed to avoid an obnoxiously perfect character!

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