It Builds Character--Master Class

Whether you are writing a full-length play or a five-minute skit, here are some helpful ideas to develop better characters who will make your script more entertaining and compelling.

1. Character Poster

Heraclitus once said, “A man’s character is his fate.” As Christians, of course, we understand that even people with bad character can be redeemed and change the course of their lives by accepting Christ as their savior. So Heraclitus’ idea isn’t without refute. Still, it’s an interesting idea for us to consider for writing. If you create a good enough character, you can drop that character into any situation and you will be able to write how that character reacts with ease.

Let me give you a real-life example. How would your grandmother react if you paid a surprise visit to her and brought a half-gallon of chocolate ice cream for dessert? Most grandmothers would be overjoyed about this circumstance. But some would not appreciate the gesture. Maybe your grandmother is dieting, allergic to chocolate, or lactose-intolerant. Perhaps your grandmother has Alzheimer’s and would not even remember who you are if you went to visit her. Some grandmothers would not appreciate having unannounced company, even from family. Whatever the situation, what is the first thing your grandmother would say when you walked through that door with the half-gallon of chocolate ice cream?

I’ll bet you can describe it perfectly and accurately, because you know your grandmother well. Whether it would be “What a wonderful surprise!” or Italian profanity, you probably know exactly what she would say in this situation.

The trick of the Character Poster exercise is to know your character so well that you would be able to predict with laser accuracy what he/she would say if a grandchild paid a surprise visit with chocolate ice cream, or if his/her car gets stolen, or if he/she wins the lottery, or if he/she gets a pink slip from work.

First, find a picture to represent your main character. You can find a picture in a magazine (full-page ads are very good for this purpose), with Google Images, in an art book, or even a family photo. It doesn’t really matter if you know the name of the person in the picture, because you will create a new name and life story. However, if you have difficulty getting past the idea that “this is a photo of my cousin Bernice who always has men fawning over her,” you might want to start with a picture of someone you don’t know.

For the purpose of example, I am going to use a self-portrait from the famous painter Titian.

Now, of course, we know this is Titian himself because it’s a self-portrait. But, let’s set that aside and come up with a name for this character. I would print this out so I have a hard copy. I am going to name this character James Young. I would write the name “James Young” below the picture.

Next, if the character has any nicknames, write them on the paper as well. Do the friends at the ballpark call him “Tiny?” Does his wife call him “Lovey Lump?” Does he have a nickname from high school that he’s embarrassed about now, such as “Slim Jim?”

In this case, my character is called “Jim” by people close to him, and his grandchildren call him “Oompa” because his voice is so loud and low he sounds like a tuba.

Then, you want to determine how old your character is. For this example, I am going to say James is 67 years old.

Now comes the fun part. You have to decide what your character wants in different areas of life. What does the character want in terms of family? What does the character want in terms of employment? What legacy does this character want to leave? What sort of friends does this character want? Does this character want some certain possessions, such as a Ferrari or a two-story house in the country?

This is what my example, James, wants:
-He wants his wife to outlive him.
-He wants his children to live closer to
-He wants to see his grandchildren more.
-He wants to learn to play
the piano, a lifelong dream he has never had time to fulfill.
-He wants to
have enough money to make it through retirement and still leave a good
inheritance for his children.
-He wants the weather to warm up because it
helps his arthritis when it is warmer.

Now that you have a few wants, you have to come up with obstacles. What is keeping him from getting him what he wants? For this example, here is what I imagined.
- He wants his wife to outlive him but she recently broke her hip.
- He
wants his children to live closer to him, but they have families and jobs that
keep them away. His youngest child is in the Air Force and is stationed in
Germany. His two older children live in the U.S., but in another state.
- He
wants to see his grandchildren more, but they live with his kids, who aren’t
close by. He insists on having the whole family together on his birthday, which
is also the 4th of July. Usually, that’s the only time he gets to see his
grandchildren. He was planning a trip to visit his daughter, but when his wife
broke her hip, that put the kibosh on that plan.
- He wants to learn to play
the piano, a lifelong dream he has never had time to fulfill. He is taking piano
lessons at the senior center, but he doesn’t think he’s learning much. Maybe you
can’t teach an old dog new tricks, he is wondering.
- He wants to have
enough money to make it through retirement and still leave a good inheritance
for his children, but he has made some poor investment decisions in the past.
That plus the medical bills that seem to pile up is whittling down the available
- He wants the weather to warm up because it helps his arthritis when
it is warmer. Obviously he can’t speed up time. Spring and summer will get here
when they get here.

Notice that I don’t have his whole life-story written, but I’m beginning to develop a person and a history. I may never need to use these details when I write a script, but knowing them makes the characters richer to me, and I can then convey that richness to the audience.

A play, broken down into its simplest form, is about a character who wants something but cannot get it. That character either has to overcome the obstacle(s) to end up getting what he/she wants, or that character has to come to terms with the fact that he/she won’t get it at this time.

You might not use every detail you put on your character poster, but knowing those details about your character will help you to write a story with well-rounded characters who seem like they lived a full life before the events in the story, and will continue to live a full life after the story is over (assuming you don’t kill them off in the story).

To make a story map, I like to glue the picture on the upper half of a piece of paper (or, if it is too large, I’ll attach it with staples). Then, I list the character’s name, nickname, age, wants, and obstacles under the picture. For a play with multiple large roles, I like to do this for each character with a large role.

2. Tension of Opposites

In your play, you are telling a story. You obviously have something interesting to tell. Perhaps your main character is living some sort of sinful lifestyle and your subordinate characters are sharing the Gospel with the main character. To make your play more interesting, you have to add tension. Your main character, for instance, might be an alcoholic. You now need to create an opposite of an alcoholic. "Oh, a teetotaler," you might say. So, maybe your character is an alcoholic posing as a teetotaler in his or her family and work life. Maybe he or she has to hide the alcohol under the kitchen sink (or worse—under the baby’s crib). This creates tension. Another opposite of an alcoholic would be someone who is going through financial strain, because alcohol costs money and gives little or no nutritive or aesthetic value for the amount of money it costs. Now, you have an alcoholic who has to choose between buying beer or shoes for his/her little boy, and choosing between going to the bar for a drink or using that money to buy food for tonight's dinner or tomorrow's breakfast.

Another example of the tension of opposites could be in a story about a rivalry within a family. The main character could be a person who feels like he/she can never live up to his/her parents' expectations, can never be just like his/her wonderfully handsome and remarkably intelligent brother. Your play can be about how this character comes to terms with himself/herself and learns to accept his/her own shortcomings. So, the brother is this wonderful specimen of a human being. What could be the opposite of that? Perhaps, while on the outside he seems so good, he is secretly a criminal who has converted an extra bedroom in his house into a greenhouse for growing marijuana. Or, for a different possibility, the opposite in this plot line could be someone who looks great on the outside, but, during the course of the play, he finds he has cancer eating away at his insides (the type and prognosis would be up to you, the playwright).

In Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, John Proctor is a husband who cheated on his wife by having an affair with their teenaged hired servant, and then lets that teen run the town amok with her accusations of witchcraft. John’s wife gets accused of witchcraft, and John tries to clear her name without admitting his affair to the court or church, at first. At the end of the play, when John and several other prisoners are about to be hanged, John makes a confession and then decides to withdraw his confession because he feels that by confessing, he will only bolster the witchcraft accusations against the others. In the end, John says, “I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor. Not enough to wave a banner with, but enough to keep it from such dogs.” The reason that John Proctor is such a compelling character is that Miller gave him the tension of opposites. He did some despicable things and then tried to cover them up to save his good name. In the end he did what was right, and in doing so, he ended up dying.

Not only does this tension make the story more interesting, it helps to build well-rounded characters. Below are some suggestions based on a few common plots and conflicts. These are not the only options, of course, but they are suggested ways to give your play tension. When you write your own scripts, you can use this list as a springboard for your own ideas.

1. A lost hiker or camper tries to survive in the wild- if the character has
some survival skills, perhaps the opposite could be he/she is afraid of the
dark, or afraid of snakes (a la Indiana Jones)

2. A love story where a
man pursues a woman who isn’t really interested in him- if the woman is suave
and sophisticated, perhaps the opposite is that she is clumsy in high heels.

3. A scientist tries to crack a computer code- if the scientist is
really intelligent, perhaps the opposite is that he/she is a social misfit. This
is very clich├ęd, but it’s just an example.

4. A person runs from God- if
the person is an analytical doubter who has to over-think things, perhaps the
opposite is that the person plays the lottery and really thinks he/she will win.

5. A person loses another person and tries to find him/her- if the
character is frantic and tends to make quick decisions, perhaps the opposite is
the fact that he/she has to plan holiday get-togethers and meals weeks or months
in advance in order to get everything right.

Another way to add tension in a play is to give the characters some unreasonable parameters. For instance, a character might have only 24 hours to plan a gala wedding. A character might have only $20 to purchase Christmas gifts for the entire family. Perhaps a character with no musical background has just one week to learn how to play the guitar well enough that he/she can play with a famous rock band in concert. Basically, the unreasonable parameters would exist either in time, finances, or talent/training. This helps to move the script along at a good clip, and it helps to bring out the most extreme and interesting character traits. If you can light a fire under the character, you can better see what the character will do.

3. More Than Babble

Another technique to develop characters is to give your character a distinctive speech pattern. A character could have a Southern drawl, a foreign accent, or a lisp. Of course, it would get tedious for the audience if every character had a distinctive speech pattern, but to make one character that way will help develop the play and aid in characterization. The following links lead to some speech patterns you could consider.

Cowboy slang click here

Southernisms click here or here.

Urban slang click here (Note: these words and phrases come in and out of style quickly. Be wary of using things that will make your play sound dated, unless you want it to sound dated.)

British vs. American English usage click here.
(click on the menu in the upper left of the screen when you get on the linked site.)

Boston to typical American English dictionary click here.

French accent click here.

An option with distinctive speech is to give your character a phrase that is repeated several times during the course of the play. It can be meaningful, such as "Cheaters never prosper;" mysterious, such as "The owl flies at midnight;" or mundane, such as "The way I see it....." This is not just a trick. It's part of characterization. Something in the character's history makes your character talk like that. Perhaps the phrase is something her mother told her when she was rocking her to sleep as a baby. Or, possibly, a phrase like "Cheaters never prosper" comes from the character's lifetime of cheating and losing (or even, perhaps, being cheated on in some way). An accent or slang vocabulary was picked up from some life experience. Did your character grow up in Germany because his dad was in the military? Is your character streetwise with a checkered past, and a vocabulary to prove it?

4. Stop Action!

You will need at least one other person to help you with this technique. It's not so much about characterization as it is about overcoming writer's block and figuring out how to logically write dialogue.

Here's how you do this technique. You and a friend/spouse both take on at least one character in a scene (you can each take on more than one, if necessary). You say, "OK, you be Sheila, I'll be Bob and Tony." Then, you give the parameters of the discussion. "Bob has just proposed to Sheila, and Sheila is overjoyed. But Tony, Bob's brother, secretly has a crush on Sheila, so he feigns happiness for the newly engaged couple."

Then you start. Don't worry about reading the script you have already written. Just say lines off the tops of your heads as you take on these characters. Don't worry too much about all the fine details, either. Just talk the scene out.

The trick to making this work the best is to stop the action and dialogue at the height of the scene. When things get rolling well, you say, "Stop Action!" and everybody stops talking and gesturing. Why stop just when the action is getting good? For several reasons. First, it gives you ideas on how to proceed, and allows you the utmost in creativity. Second, you are the playwright, and you want to be able to make the play turn the way you imagine it, not the way your helpful spouse or friend imagines it. Third, stopping right at the height of action gives you a chance to catch up and write. Usually, the biggest stumbling block in writing is getting through the more, shall we say, boring stuff. You have to get through some mundane details before you get to the fight scene. Once this exercise has gone through this pedestrian part of the dialogue and has managed to get to the more interesting part, you can understand how to write out the mundane part before you get to the place where the ideas pour in.

Remember, if you have done your homework and made good characters, you can predict what they will do or say in the major plot points, but how they arrive at a pivotal point is what makes the difference between a compelling piece and an amateurish piece.

5. Consider Your Actors

If you are writing for your church, you might want to think about the talent pool (if you already have a venue). Many churches have about ten women for every man involved in the drama ministry. If you write a play with an even number of men's and women's parts, but you have 70 possible women who could fill the 4 main women's roles, whereas you have 2 possible men and 4 main men's roles, you will end up with a lot of hurt feelings from the women, and at the same time you will have to beg some uninterested men to join the play.

Sometimes, though, it is better to pare down your characters all around. Each character should have a purpose. One writer once said to pretend you have to pay $100 for every main character, $50 for every subordinate character, and $25 for every speaking extra. Budget your characters wisely. Too many characters can be confusing for the audience. Does the main character have two meddling co-workers? Perhaps you can roll both the co-workers into one. How do you know if this is possible? Simply ask yourself this question: How do each of these co-workers uniquely add to the plot of the play? If each co-worker doesn't make a unique contribution to the play, then it would be a good idea to roll them into one. For a different play, perhaps a character has two children. Does the character really need both children, or would one suffice? Sometimes, you will want all those characters, but many times you can easily reduce the cast and end up with a more effective play in the end.

In this same vein, try to give every main and subordinate character a "moment" in the play. Obviously the star of the play will have several "moments," while some subordinate characters might only get one shining "moment." But, these actors are coming to rehearsals, memorizing lines, sometimes learning songs and choreography, and generally working hard to make your play come to life. In addition, they have helped with the publicity of the play because they have no-doubt invited their friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, etc. Return the favor by giving them at least one place in the play where they are in the spotlight.

If a character is simply someone's wife, only appears in scenes with her spouse, and doesn't really have any good funny or poignant lines, but mainly becomes arm candy, you aren't respecting the character in your play, and you aren't respecting the actor who gets the part. If you discover you have such a character, and you don't simply want to delete that character, give that character a sense of sarcasm, with some lines that are sure to get some laughs. Or, perhaps you can give that character some lines that offer a glimpse of her feelings. While every actor doesn't have to get a solo in a song, it's important to make sure that you aren't forcing your actors to go endure several evening rehearsals simply to turn on a lamp or open a door. Make sure every character has a purpose and every role has a "moment" (except for extras, which, by definition, are parts that don't move the story).

These five ideas will help you develop better characters and make your scripts more interesting. You may not need to use every one of these ideas for every play you write, but once you know them they are in your writer’s toolbox and you can use them when you need them.

To view other master classes from previous months, see below:

Labanotation, February 2009

Singability, January 2009

Avoiding cliches, December 2008

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