What’s Your Character’s Status

Like many bookworms, I’m in the middle of two books at the moment. One Fifth Avenue by Candace Bushnell revolves around an apartment block in modern-day Manhattan. The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory is set in the court of King Henry the Eighth. On the surface, these are two very different books. Yet in both books, the characters are preoccupied with raising their status at all costs.

 A character’s status has a huge impact on how they interact with others and it plays a vital role in shaping a story. Status refers to how confident and powerful a character feels inside themselves. Background, life circumstances and personality influences their status. Their status has nothing to do with their external circumstances. A king may constantly apologise for himself, while a roadsweeper sweeps the streets with his head held high.  

The idea of status was developed by Keith Johnstone in his book Impro. Though he was working in the realm of theatre, his ideas offer a rich source of material to writers who want to understand their characters better and make their character interactions sizzle.

In my creative writing classes, I do an exercise called The Superhero Scale, where I ask students to give their character a status number from one to 12. The higher the number, the higher status. The status they choose will show itself in their character’s body language and tone of voice. For example, low status characters, from 1-4, may shuffle, gaze at the ground and speak in a low voice, while high status characters are likely to strut, speak in a commanding tone and look you firmly in the eye. Then you have mid-status characters, whose behaviour is fairly normal.

Once you know your character’s status, even the simplest exchanges can be charged with meaning. That’s because characters are always involved in status tradeoffs. They may try to lower each others’ status in subtle ways, through one-upmandship and put-downs. For example:

          “I’m really loving War and Peace.”

          “Isn’t it marvellous? I must have read it five times now.”

Low-status characters are more likely to do this and they can be quite effective. They may decide not to speak, or to feign illness. The higher status characters can’t argue with them, so the low-status character can raise their status a few notches. Meanwhile, high-status characters may pretend to be low status to satisfy their own needs. For example.

          “I’m really loving War and Peace.”

          “I know. I especially like the pictures.”

If you feel your character interactions and conflict scenes lack spark, give your character a status number and think about how that status number shows through in their actions. You’ll be able to create scenes that crackle with emotion and compel the reader to read on.

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