What makes a story new, fresh, and original?

Lajos Egri: The Art of Dramatic Writing

The art of all dramatic writing begins and ends with the characters.

The plots, regardless of the genre, are all the same: love, hate, greed, revenge, power, and jealousy – or a complex and puzzling mixture.

So what makes stories new and fresh and different?

Always, it’s the characters.

That’s my opinion.

But I stole it.

And, through the years, I found it to be true.

Lajos Egri had the opinion before I did, and he has produced one of the greatest books ever on The Art of Dramatic Writing.

Egri may have focused on the theater where characters occupy every moment on stage.

But novelists would be wise to consider his words as well.

He wrote:  “In the arts we cannot discover startling originality–only trends, styles, twists, slants, tricks, exaggeration, minimization, emphasis on parts instead of the whole. Originality, then, is rare in the field of literature and, for that matter, in all fields of art.

“If we consider originality almost non-existent, then what shall a writer strive for? Characterization. Living, vibrating human beings are still the secret and magic formula of great and enduring writing. Read, or better, study the immortals and you will be forced to conclude that their unusual penetration into human character is what has kept their work fresh and alive through centuries, and not because they may have a new “slant” which seemed to many to be “original.”

He added: “A weak character cannot carry the burden of protracted conflict in a play. He cannot support a play. We are forced, then, to discard such a character as a protagonist. There is no sport if there is no competition; there is no play if there is no conflict. Without counterpoint there is no harmony. The dramatist needs not only characters who are willing to put up a fight for their convictions. He needs characters who have the strength, the stamina, to carry this fight to its logical conclusion.

We may start with a weak man who gathers strength as he goes along; we may start with a strong man who weakens through conflict, but even as he weakens he must have the stamina to bear his humiliation.”

And these are his thoughts on creating and building the protagonist in your story.

“The pivotal character knows what he wants…Without him (or her) the story flounders…in fact, there is no story.”

 

 “A pivotal character must not merely desire something. He (or she) must want it so badly that he will destroy or be destroyed in the effort to attain his goal…A good character must have something very vital at stake.”
“A pivotal character is a driving force, not because he decided to be one. He becomes what he is for the simple reason that some inner or outer necessity forces him to act; there is something at stake for him, honor, health, money, protection, vengeance, or a mighty passion.”

The art of all dramatic writing begins and ends with the characters.

That’s what Lajos Egri believes.

And he has convinced me.

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  • Character is why I can read Jane Eyre any time I want. Character is why I get dragged into GWTW every time I have the temerity to go check a scene, because it stays tightly focused on Scarlett even when she’s like watching a clash of carriages. Character is why I go to Manderly again.

    If the writer has given us the haunting interior monologue to know the character, it is to see how he does it. If the writer has not, and the character is proved by action, it is to think what possible journey the character went on since he was born that would make him end up where he does.

    Character is why I love Lord Peter and Harriet Vane.

    It’s also where originality can be found: how characters adapt to a world that has never been what it is now.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I wish I had written that, Alicia. You captured it all. We don’t love a book because of the story. We love the book because we never forget the character who made the story worth reading.

      • One of the reasons I insist on only reading books with at least one semi-sympathetic character in it.

        Scarlett comes close to being unlikable, but Mitchell’s genius (I read somewhere) is that Scarlett is often better, pluckier, stronger, braver, bolder, even sometimes kinder – than the characters around her. Purely good characters like Melanie are too sweet for me. Scarlett has to fight for everything. Even when she steals Suellen’s beau, 1) he gets what he really wanted, and 2) Suellen wasn’t using him very well, and wouldn’t have for Tara. We wouldn’t ache for her at the end if we didn’t hope she would win eventually, would we?

        If all the characters are not worth reading about, why would we want to read what happens to them, which is as close as we will come to living their lives?

        I can’t read Lolita. Not yet. Maybe I’m not dark enough. Other writers can do that part; I’ll pass. Yup. Just did the Wikipedia lookup. Not reading that. It’ll be difficult enough washing the summary out of my brain.

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