I’ve always been a character writer. I love character development, my favourite theatrical experiences center on interesting, well-developed characters.
What is your favourite part of a play?
One of the reasons writer falters, certainly in a play, is because of one-dimensional characters. Characters with no life outside the play. Characters who are there only to serve the plot. Characters who only exist in an occupation – teacher….doctor…mom… (unless of course this is a specific theme driven choice. I have a play where the characters are numbered One to Fifteen) The more alive a character is on the page, the more they’ll come alive off the page.
How do you create specific characters?
Take these two steps and you’ll be well on your way to creating specific characters.
Give them a name. This is the easiest place to start. Even if that name never makes it into the script, the easiest way to visualize a character is to name them. A name is the gateway to so much information. I have a play called Sweep Under Rug in which there are two sisters named Miranda and Ariel. The names come from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The mother in the play is never seen, but is described as a drug addict and all around “bad person.”
I wanted to provide a detail that showed a different side to the mother, since she can’t speak for herself. That side is a love of Shakespeare. Yes you have to know Shakespeare to get the reference, but if you’re a director studying the play it doesn’t take too much research to find out where these two names come from.
Secondly, Miranda and Ariel are very pretty names. It’s even hard to say the names in a harsh manner. The world the characters live in is decidedly ugly. I purposefully chose pretty names for these characters to contrast their surroundings.
How do you choose names for your characters?
Character Specific Language. When you’re writing for specific characters you want to give them their own language. What words do they use? How do they sound? Do they use a lot of noises – umms, coughs, hums? How do they sound when they get emotional? How do they breathe? How do they respond to pop culture? Would your character swear or say “oh my gosh?”
Establishing a character language is extremely helpful to crafting character driven dialogue. In Sweep Under Rug the older sister Miranda is extremely depressed. She’s sad to the point that she can’t express herself fully. She doesn’t know what to say or how to say it. To that end, she is losing her language. She speaks in fragments. She doesn’t use complete sentences.
MIRANDA: Walls crumbling away. Crumbling.
She’s also a poet. In a couple of moments where she’s able to communicate, she shares her view of her world in a poetic form – it’s something specific and different from her world, it defines who she is as a character.
MIRANDA: Getting worse out there. Anger under lock and key. One with Knife. One with Nail. Yesterday one just takes your stuff. Today you‘re dead. Today there is a never ending rain, never ending in your bones. Flood up to the ears, up to nose, up to eyes. It‘s the knowing we will drown. That‘s the worst part.
If you just take these two steps with your characters you’ll elevate them off the page. You’ll make your characters come to life. And that’s going to make an audience remember your work.