Writing Powerful Scenes, Part 2: Beginning with Character

Historically, a “scene” was a set on a play. It consisted of the setting in which a dramatic exchange took place. It’s not a coincidence that “scene” and “seen” sound exactly alike.

But as novelists, we don’t necessarily have the same kinds of “scenes” that occur in a play. A scene could, for example, consist entirely of a bit of inner dialog, without a referenced location at all. I would normally not recommend that you try it, but it could work. In the same way, you can create a scene that consists only of a setting, without characters in it at all, and yet the “scene” could convey information vital to a story. For example, you might show an empty room belonging to an old woman, with pictures of her dead husband, and mementos from her life. No characters would be involved, but you could set a tone and relay reams of information about a character that we will meet later.

I believe that since the original meaning of the word has changed, the whole concept of what a scene consists of has been muddled over the centuries. If I were to describe what I think a scene is, I would say that a scene typically has a few necessary components. Algis Budrys used to say that those consisted of a) at least one character, b) in a setting, c) with a conflict.

That’s a pretty usable definition in most instances, but not all scenes are created equal. When we read a great one, we feel energized. A scene can be so powerful that we will remember it for the rest of our lives, as if we had actually lived through the experience. It can change the way that we think and behave, and thus influence entire generations. Great books can unite people, creating groups of fans who feel a kinship because of their love for a work. Thus, books like Harry Potter, Twilight, Lord of the Rings, Dune, and so on can create and change our culture in the same way that powerful religious works like the Bible or the Koran do.

Yet far too often, scenes seem lackluster, tired, or boring. So let’s talk about some things that can make your scene feel “magical.”

Create Engaging Characters

First, when I begin studying a scene, I’m not just looking for characters, I’m looking for engaging characters. This doesn’t mean that the characters need to be likable. Nor do they need to be so far outside of norm that they come off as being grotesque. Depending upon the character’s role in a story, what makes a character engaging can change. For example, a villain who is brilliant, deadly, and powerful can be engaging. When I look at some of my favorite villains in movies, I might think of monstrous characters like the Terminator or Hannibal Lector. But a villain doesn’t need to be all powerful or monstrous. He might simply have fascinating motivations or interesting ways of doing things. Indeed, if you look at villains in The Godfather, you’ll find that some of the best ones are sympathetic or even admirable in their own way. In short, each of the villains mentioned here is engaging simply because they deviate from the norm. They’re not your everyday villain.

Yet many of my favorite protagonists tend to be what I call an “everyman.” For example, Frodo Baggins isn’t particularly noble or talented. Luke Skywalker starts off being a normal teenager. I find that time and again, I like protagonists that I can identify with easily. For me, the key to an interesting hero is most often that he is someone whose point of view I can slip into so easily that I find myself transported into his world almost without thought. Thus, a protagonist who is very odd in his mannerisms or thought patterns become a barrier to transport.

Very often, when we talk about great protagonists, we say that they have “rooting interest.” In short, we tend to care about them deeply. But what makes you care about a character? Generally speaking, the character often has to be morally centered. In short, he’s deeply committed to doing the right things for the right reasons. Most people can’t easily become engaged by a hero who is grasping, vengeful, foolish, deceitful, and so on. I don’t identify with them. So I don’t like protagonists who are, say, rapists or child abusers. I can’t relate.

Nor can a protagonist be too powerful. I’ve never really found Superman to be someone that I feel strong rooting interest for. Someone who is stronger than steel? Faster than a bullet? Sure, he has a certain appeal for children who are so often powerless and therefore crave power, but I don’t really feel a rooting interest for him. A protagonist might have some intriguing talent, but it almost always needs to be offset by a flaw.

Once again, a character who is too “different” from me becomes difficult to identify with. Give your character three legs, tentacles, and the inability to conceive of verbs, and I might feel a certain intellectual curiosity about him, but I won’t feel deeply for him.

So it’s not enough to just have a character. One must take care to devise the character carefully, to combine their levels of intrigue, power, moral justification, beauty, compassion, intelligence, creativity, and so on in an effort to constantly entertain and engross your reader.

Moreover, you need to bring the character to life—you need to create enough of a history, a voice, a style and tone so that the character seems perfectly real and believable to your reader. Only then will the readers begin to get lost in your tale, in your scenes.

Previously Published


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