theatre | writing | writing tips

Playwriting 101 : Thinking about Character

April 15, 2014

Last time, we looked at the bare bones of writing a play – now, we’ll go into a little more depth. This is what I learned about creating and developing character from the Engine Room program at The Garage, Norwich.

Your characters are the backbone of your entire story – without them, the events of your plot have nothing to act upon. Your characters will inform the entire shape of your play (or story, or novel, or whatever). Their personalities will determine what happens, and more importantly, why it happens.

01 : Creating Characters

The first step towards creating a character is deciding what they’re like. Fairly straightforward, right? Just a basic idea of their personality and role in the plot is enough to start off with. When I was coming up with ideas for the protagonist of my play, I had a particular character in mind. I was thinking of a guy in his late teens, who’d just dropped out of uni and had no ideas about what to do with his life. This character eventually became Freddie, who’d just failed his A-Levels and had become stuck in a dead end job that he didn’t enjoy.
Well, that was enough to start out with. But it wasn’t enough to write a whole play about. At this point, Freddie was looking kind of two-dimensional. He needed a little bit of depth to his character, so that I had something to build upon.
There’s plenty of exercises out there that will help you bulk up a character. To start with, try a character questionnaire, like this one. The idea with these is to pretend that you’re interviewing your character, and answer the questions accordingly. Note that this one has a question to do with quirks and habits that your character has – this is especially useful for scriptwriters. A character with a quirk is a character that’s instantly recognised by the actor and their audience. Don’t forget that even something seemingly superficial, like a stutter or a tendency to interrupt other people, says a lot about a character’s personality. For example, I have a grouchy old man character. Before he even says a full sentence, I have him ‘tch’-ing and shaking his head at Freddie. This is his quirk, and it tells the audience immediately that he is grouchy, and that he disapproves of Freddie’s actions. It draws them in – why does this old man have a grudge? What will he do next?
If you have someone else to bounce ideas off of, and you have a good idea of the way your character talks and acts, you can ask your helper to interview you as though you were your character. This is a great way to discover early on if something’s gone a bit weird in character development. Through this method, I discovered that the Freddie in my head was a bit of a weird caricature of every rubbish teenager I’d seen on TV. That had to change. The more questions I was asked as Freddie, the more his character began to round out and become sympathetic, instead of weird and annoying. One rule for this method : there can’t be any ‘I don’t know’-ing or ‘that’s a secret’-ing. Act as though your character has taken a truth serum and has to answer everything honestly. If you can’t think of how they’d answer a particular question, think harder. If you really don’t think your character would want to answer a question, think about why. Freddie, for example, wouldn’t want to answer the question ‘What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done?’ Why? Because he’s the kind of person who projects a false sense of confidence – he just couldn’t deal with telling a total stranger his deepest darkest most embarrassing moment. Later, I managed to work this into the play. Remember that this isn’t a test of how well you already know your character – it’s an exercise to help you get to know them better. It really does help!

02 :  Showing Character with the Billion W’s

By now you should know who your character is. Great! Now comes the hard part – introducing them to your audience.

I’m going to go ahead and repeat a piece of advice you’ve probably head a gazillion times already : ‘Show, don’t tell.’ This is the nugget of wisdom on which all modern writing (and modern writing courses) is based, and it’s even more important in scriptwriting, because more often than not you will actually have to show things. 

In a novel, you can (probably) get away with writing : ‘John looked down at the shoe in his hand. It evoked the day, many years ago, when he first saw it on the shelf at Clarks. The leather shone seductively in the late afternoon light, and from that moment forth, John knew that that shoe was made for him.

Here’s what that horrific piece of purple prose looks like in a script :

John looks at the shoe.
Not exactly Shakespeare, is it? If that’s all they’re given, your audience is never going to work out that John’s shoe obsession is just one way in which he expresses his desire to return to a simpler time, before the collapse of his ten-year marriage to the woman he loves.
Those homewreckers!
The audience also probably won’t appreciate a five minute monologue on the exact role the shoe plays in John’s shattered and lonely existence. Like I said, it’s not exactly Shakespeare. Theatre has moved on from the days when an actor would walk onstage, deliver an expository speech (or inspired monologue, your choice) and exit to give the actual plot some room.
So how about this? Let’s pretend for a moment that these characters are real people with real problems, motivations, and footwear addictions. At any given moment, your characters should be asking these questions :
Who Am I? : You’ve answered this already – it’s the aspect of their personality that’s coming forth in this scene.
Where Am I? : Does the setting affect how the character is behaving? Why is that?
What Time Is It? : Is it first thing in the morning, or the middle of the night? Are they a morning person or dog tired?
That’s all background stuff. It might affect the way our characters behave, but there’s nothing they can do about it. For now, let’s imagine that our character is Annie, who is about to confront her roommate Bob about stealing her socks. It’s the middle of the day and Annie’s just run into him in the hallway, in front of the guy she likes. (I have footwear on the brain today, sorry not sorry.) Now Annie is asking :
What do I want?
 
That’s the big question every writer, actor, and director should be asking of their characters. As we’ve already established, we can’t just have Annie walk up to Bob and hiss : ‘I am angry! I think you have stolen my socks! I want to make you feel bad! But I’m keeping this quiet because I don’t want the guy I like to think I’m a paranoid sock obsessive!’ That would look pretty bad on stage. As writers, our job is to have Annie say all that stuff, but in a way that doesn’t make her look like a robot missing her subtlety drive. Let’s ask some more questions.
Why Do I Want It? 
 
That’s a big one. Why does Annie want her socks back so badly? I’ve decided that it’s because the apartment is cold – she bought particularly woolly socks because her persnickety personality gave her the foresight to prepare for the winter, and she’s annoyed that Bob didn’t bother to think ahead too. This gives her some more motivation : not only does she want her socks back, she wants Bob to feel guilty about taking them.
What Am I Going to Do to Get It?
 
There’s three aspects to this one. What is your character going to do :
Physically? : Do they punch a wall? Go sit in the corner and brood? Start to cry?
Verbally? : Do they start yelling, or talk very quietly? Do they start to stutter or develop some other quirk?
Psychologically? : This is really, really important. A character might be looking at the ground and mumbling when on the inside, they’re screaming with rage. So how do we show that? Well, the subconscious has a way of showing its nasty wrinkled behind even when we’re trying to keep it hidden away (with fancy frilly conscious mannerisms or something. I’m not sure where I was going with that analogy).
For example, Annie might act totally cool about Bob stealing her socks in front of her crush, but later on, she’s planning to make him pay. She might say something like ‘We’ll discuss this later.’ Or maybe she’ll let Bob pass with a friendly wave and then catch him by the arm and whisper ‘Don’t think I’m going to let this drop.’ In this way, Annie achieves what she wants to do verbally (by telling Bob he’s in trouble), physically (by appearing as casual as possible) and psychologically (by successfully navigating the situation without making things awkward).

03 : KEEPING CHARACTER CONSISTENT

Keeping your character consistent is one of the most important parts of writing – it’s also one of the hardest. It’s no good planning out exactly what your character is going to act like if they then start acting differently as soon as the plot requires it.
-cough- Moffat... -cough-
I’m just going to leave this here.
In any given scene, you should be asking the questions we talked about above, and then answering them the same way your character would. Let’s look at Annie and Bob again. Say, for example, that Bob was an irrationally angry person. When I asked Annie about her aims in the scene, I forgot to ask Bob. While Annie is trying to make Bob feel guilty about stealing her socks while avoiding an awkward situation in front of her crush, Bob is doing the exact opposite. He’s trying to get away with Grand Theft Footwear, and because he’s a colossal jerk, he’s going to go ahead and make Annie look bad in front of her crush, too.
Inconsistency would be if I, as the writer, decided to change Bob’s character so that Annie gets to do what she wants. If I decided to let Bob suddenly see the error of his ways and be consumed with guilt, he’d be behaving in an inconsistent manner. If I let him yell: ‘Jeez Annie, stop being so anal-retentive and accusing me of stealing your stupid socks!’ he’d be a little more in line.
This also provides a bit of tension. After all, if Bob does nothing and Annie just continues with her day, then where’s the drama in this scene? Nobody wants to watch a bunch of characters getting everything they want, any time they want it. That’s bad writing.

Next time, I’ll be thinking about the most important part of any script – the scenes.

I hope this was helpful to you all – as always, feel free to leave comments and tips of your own!



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theatre | writing | writing tips

Playwriting 101 : Getting Started

November 21, 2013

This time last year, I was invited to take part in a 12 month scriptwriting course at The Garage, Norwich. “Don’t worry,” they assured me, “You don’t have to be a scriptwriter already, we’re just looking for people who want to have a go.”

I didn’t need any more encouragement. This time last year, I was terrified of my writing. I’d never read any of it aloud – I’d barely even shown any to my tutors. Kind of a bad start when you’ve just dropped 9K on a Creative Writing degree. But one thing I’ve learned this year is that writing is a lot easier than I ever thought it would be. Last month, I finished my first play. It was dead on 100 pages long, which translates to about an hour and a half of runtime. And it was okay. Not great, but not too bad, for a first try.
It turns out all I really needed was some advice on how to get started. In scriptwriting, there are some particular issues : how to format the script, how to write good dialogue, and how to write not only for the audience, but for the actors – and the director, and maybe the producer too. It’s a daunting task, and that’s why I’ve noted down some of the things I learned while I was writing. Hopefully someone out there will find it as useful as I did.

o1 : Getting an Idea

According to V for Vendetta and the edgy half of the internet, “ideas are bulletproof”. Maybe that’s what makes them so hard to hunt down.
The best ideas come from real life. You’ve heard it before : ‘Write what you know.’ I like to carry a little notebook around with me where I can note down any ideas I have during the day. They can come from anywhere : overheard conversations on the bus, things you see on the internet, talks with friends.
When I don’t have my notebook on me, which is a lot of the time because I’m amazingly absent minded, I use the notes function on my phone.
You might find that you’re just coming up with lines of words that don’t seem to go anywhere. That’s okay – note those down too. They might not fit with anything you’re writing right now, but you never know when you’ll be able to work those disembodied lines into something really neat!
You can also try actively looking for ideas : my favourite place to do this is, believe it or not, Wikipedia. Ever started out looking up breeds of cats only to end up reading about social issues amongst the inuits? You’ve been Wikipedia’d. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself absorbing all kinds of information – and the more information you have to hand, the more likely it is that you’ll find an idea. You can try this on other sites, too. Try Tumblr for gathering knowledge on points of view different to your own, and Flickr if you’re more of a visual writer. You never know what you’ll find lurking in the depths of the internet.

o2 : Formatting your Script

Script formatting was probably the biggest reason I never tried writing for the stage before. It just seemed so complicated. Let’s face it, it’s hard to concentrate on your literary genius when your technological ignorance is preventing you from getting the line indents right.
That’s why software like Celtx exists. It’s a completely free program that automatically formats your script for Stage, Radio, and Screen. If you’re not writing for any of those, it has an online library of templates that might be more to your liking. They even have one for the BBC standard script format. They’re not even paying me to write this, and I’m still plugging them as my favourite writing tool.
Celtx also has an online workspace called Celtx Edge, where you can access any scripts linked to your account from anywhere with internet access. There’s a 15-day trial, or you can get it for £9.99 a month. As a dirt-poor student, I haven’t shelled out for it yet, but it looks pretty good if you’re collaborating with someone.
You can find some resources on using Celtx here : 1 , 2
And if, on the off chance you’re browsing this on your washing machine or just don’t like downloading things some random blogger told you were good, remember that Kate Tempest’s hit new play, ‘Wasted’ was written entirely in good old Microsoft Word.
Just keep in mind that there’s a right way to write for everyone : there are lots of tools to help you with the standard format, but when it comes to writing for the stage, a lot of people aren’t really picky about how the script is packaged. What they really care about is your writing, not how well it’s presented.

o3 : Actually Writing

Some writers can pull ideas out of nowhere, and go on to write amazing things. Most people have a bit more trouble than that – it’s not that our ideas aren’t good, it’s that they don’t translate to the page in quite the way we were expecting.
Doesn’t matter. Keep writing it anyway. The worst that could happen is that you don’t like it – it’s not like you have to show your finished manuscript to the writing police or something. The fact of the matter is, you can only improve a skill – any skill – by practising. You’d expect to have to practise riding a bike, or juggling, right? Writing is like that. The more you try, the better you get. As in anything, failure only teaches us how to improve.
Skydiving is the exception. 

And in case you need that extra push out of the plane, try signing up to NaNoWriMo – this year gave budding writers the option to choose ‘Script’ as their genre and set their own target. The only catch is, you have to finish it in a month. Maybe you’re reading this way after November has passed. That’s okay! There’s nothing to stop you saying : ‘I’m going to write a script, and I’m going to finish it in X amount of months’. I finished mine in 6 – next time, I’m going to try and write even faster.

You can even try looking around and see if there are any scriptwriting workshops in your area – if you write already, there’s plenty of theatres looking for new voices. If you don’t write already, there’s plenty of theatres, writing groups, and tutors willing to help you start.
Or, if you want, you can go off on your own. The nice thing about writing is that you can go about it any way you like. Feel free to comment, and share your own tips!

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