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!