Aristotle’s 4 Levels to Creating Characters that Live


Considered the Google of his day, Aristotle knew everything there was to know about everything there was to know in ancient Greece.

This polymath was born in 384 BCE and would have made a lot of money blogging if blogging had existed. Aristotle has written about aesthetics, biology, ethics, linguistics, logic, metaphysics, music, physics, poetry, politics, rhetoric, theatre, zoölogy, and a system of Western philosophy.

In his classic work, Poetics, he describes Character as one of the essential elements of drama, the others being: Plot, Thought, Melody, Diction, and Spectacle.

Character is essential for any story and all stories are told through the speech and behavior of the characters in those stories. To help you create characters that live you might want to look at the four levels of characterization according to Aristotle.

The first level is the Physical Characterization.

This is the basic facts about what the person looks like.

Are they tall, short, skinny, fat?

Male, female, transgender?

What race is the character?

How does the character dress, move, speak?

The first level characteristics are everything you can tell about a character by looking at them. Because this is the easiest level of characterization, we tend to spend a lot of time on this level and sometimes the other levels can be overlooked.

The second level is Social.

This level refers to the character’s economic status, profession, trade, religion, family relationships, anything that can put the character in context of their social situation.

A wealthy character is going to say and do and react to things differently than a poor beggar in the street that hasn’t eaten for several days.

If you are a carpenter you have different jargon from a professor or a telephone technician. If you follow a certain religion, you may do or say things differently based on your beliefs. If you love your siblings, you will have different things to say about them than if you hate them or even feel indifferent toward them.

Go through your dialogue. If everyone sounds the same, think about how they differ socially. That small change can make a big difference in how they speak.

The third level is Psychological.

This is the character’s habitual responses, attitudes, desires, motivation, likes and dislikes and inner workings of the mind.

Giving your character specific details about their psychology can help us understand what makes them tick.

Maybe they always scratch the right side of their face when they tell a lie. Perhaps they keep their left hand in their pocket all the time because they used to get slapped a lot as a child.

Something that a character dislikes can bring more tension into a scene. (Think Indiana Jones and the snakes.)

Knowing what your character WANTS, what the character’s motivation is for doing the things he or she does is important for driving scenes forward.

The fourth level is Moral.

This level refers to what the character is willing to do to get what he or she wants. How far will this person go? Murder? Stealing? Lying? Cheating?

What are you character’s values and beliefs? Do they match yours or are they far from what believe?

When they are pressed to take action, do they stick by those beliefs and values or do they abandon them in a flash?

Another way to think about his is: What is this character’s true nature?

We all show one face to the world but who are we in private when no one is watching? Thinking about this for you character can really give that person depth and make them come to life on the page.

Physical, Social, Psychological, Moral

If your characters seem one-dimensional, check each of these four levels of character and see if you can add more specific details to each level. Your story people will go from just being people with “green eyes and fierce smiles” to people with  “green eyes and fierce smiles” who move and relate and think and act like living, breathing human beings.


3 thoughts on “Aristotle’s 4 Levels to Creating Characters that Live

  1. Hello, where did you find the original source of the four levels? I need to cite the original source for my paper. Very good article, thank you!


  2. Pingback: 6 Questions You Need to Answer to Win NaNoWriMo | Stories are the Wildest Things

  3. Pingback: Hai voluto la penna? Mo scrivi! | Epenthesis

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