Creating Characters & Giving Them Voice

9 Months To Birth Your Play

9 Months To Birth Your Play is a new series designed for artists to explore well-being-centred approaches to their practice whilst gaining a more rigorous understanding of the psychology of drama. 8 Well-being Workshops by neuro-psychodynamic coaching psychologist Anna Webster run alongside Writing Workshops from 9 exemplary artists working in the wonderful world of new writing today.

The next workshop to be published will be Well-being Workshop 4: How Do We Respond When Psychological Needs are Threatened or Thwarted? on Friday 19th July.

Creating Characters & Giving Them Voice by Jasmine Naziha Jones

Hello hello! Welcome to my thingamajig on creating characters! A set of tips and prompts to get the old brain fizzing and hopefully help you on your way to generating lots of lovely material to play with.  

As with anything like this, be like a magpie – take whatever’s shiny and exciting, pop it in your pretty little beak and fly away with it to your nest. If you don’t find anything shiny and exciting here, don’t worry! There are so very many ways to approach creativity but the initial spark should involve some kind of pleasure, joy or hint of excitement. This is different from fear / self-doubt! You may never be rid of those old friends but I promise, if you feel the fear and do it anyway you will make breakthroughs.  

So…are you sitting anxiously and uncomfortably? Then let’s begin! 

What comes first? Character? Story? World perhaps? Maybe you’ve got a solid idea of someone in your head you’re needing to formalise them? Maybe you’re feeling your way through a hunch? Perhaps you’ve got a sense of the world and you need to populate it or maybe you’re chomping at the bit to get something – anything – on paper but don’t know where to start? 

The bottom line is, everything comes back to great characters. Whether your plot takes place on Mars, at a petrol station, or in a family home, story is generated by what characters want, so it’s worth spending time getting to know these individuals, their histories, preferences, wounds and motivations. All this stuff is coal for your engine. You don’t have to fuel up all at once but having something to get the fires burning will help you on your way.  

Once you know your characters a little better and have a feel for how they’ll react in various situations you can get plotting, or if you’re already plotting and your story is raising questions, take them back to your characters and do some fleshing out.  

As a performer I love playing games, they’re a great leveller and bring a sense of playfulness to the rehearsal room. I hope the following tips and provocations will bring a sense of playfulness to the page for you. There’s no one set way of working. Just stay curious, be brave and remember to take risks! 



‘In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident.’ ~ Tina Fey 

Become a character detective  

Inspiration is everywhere so get out the house, make like Polonius, and get earwigging. Go to the supermarket, your local coffee shop, pretend to wait at the bus stop – whatever – just listen and observe.  

Once, at the supermarket, I overheard an elderly woman (we’ll call her Shelia) treat a young man to a very detailed story about her varicose veins. She’d been having a terrible time by all accounts. 

Who is Sheila? Maybe she’s a chronic over-sharer? Perhaps she’s lonely? If this is true, then what else is true? Maybe her husband died recently?  

I’ve just caught myself riffing on a cliche: elderly = lonely.  

That’s fine but what if I challenge myself to subverting this preconception? Maybe I’ll unearth a surprising outcome. 

What if Shelia isn’t lonely but believes others are? What if Shelia read an article about the loneliness epidemic among young people and has taken it upon herself to chat to as many youths as possible every day? 

If this is true, then what else is true?  

Maybe she’s atoning for something horrible in her past? Maybe she’s hopeful her do-goodery will get her nominated for an OBE?  

Why does she want these things? 

Throughout the process of creating characters, when inspiration stalls, ask questions.  

‘Why?’ is always good as is ‘If this is true, then what else is true?’  

Take your observations and use them as prompts for improvisation 

Set a timer for ten minutes and free-write a monologue around your observations. Don’t stop, don’t even pause, keep going until that timer goes off. This is just a challenge – not the be all and end all of your creative existence. Even if you mostly write nonsense, the idea is to exhaust your inner critic and sift for some right-brained gold. When the timer goes off, review your writing, highlighting anything that sparks your creativity. Use these findings as further prompts on which to build your character. 

Use art or found material 

Pictures, portraits, photographs, and artwork can also be a great sources of inspiration. Phoebe Eclair Powell’s play ‘Shed: Exploded View’ was inspired by Cornelia Parker’s famous artwork. So get thee to a gallery, look through some old family photos or sift through the news for stories (local news is especially great for this). 

Listen to some of the oldest voicenotes you’ve received, pick a sentence or thought and see what you can frisk your imagination for in response to it. 

Reddit is a brilliant resource. Theres a subreddit for everything so if youre musing on a subject run a search and see what comes up. The front page is also a great source for prompts; as I write this there’s a discussion entitled People who went to a wedding where the couple didn’t last long, what happened? It has over 2.3k worth of comments – so much inspiration!



I have to remind myself constantly that I’m only shovelling sand into a box so later I can build castles.’  ~ Shannon Hale 

Okay, so you have an image or the essence of someone in your mind and you want to get to know them better. This is such beneficial work – the more you know a character the better you’ll understand how they’ll react in any given situation, this helps generate story, antagonism and obstacles.  

This doesn’t mean you’ve got to know them in forensic detail from birth til present-day. Think of the following provocations as chucking stuff on the compost heap to refine into concentrated fertile material. This practical ‘doing’ ensures ideas continue to percolate subconsciously and you’ll likely find yourself having an ‘ah-ha’ moment whilst doing something completely unrelated. 

Yeah, you could write a biography … 

I’m not going teach you how to suck eggs here. It doesn’t have to be an epic three volume novel – broad strokes will do. Writing a history of your character’s life can be useful but it can also be a bit sans joy paralysis by analysis in the early stages. 

…but how about…Facts & Questions instead? 

I love this exercise and use it all the time in my acting work. It’s a reliable way of revealing layers of information and helps me ground my character work in an expansive reality informed by, and beyond, the text.  

For actors, this work is a rewarding but labour-intensive excavation of information based on the given circumstances of the play.  

As writers though, we’re starting from scratch. There are no given circumstances. Instead, we’re going to reverse-engineer this exercise by zooming in on the micro in order to get some perspective on the macro. 

The premise is simple: 

  • Historical Facts & Historical Questions 
  • Present Facts & Present Questions 

This is an exercise in intuition and formalisation; facts lead to questions and questions lead to more facts and the more you answer the more thats revealed. Think of it as right-brained biography work. 

Thinking back to Shelia and her varicose veins… 

Present Fact: Shelia has varicose veins. 

Historical Question: how did she get them? 

Keeping things simple by staying with this one question, I’m going to pull an answer out of my bum: 

Shelia’s varicose veins appeared when she was twenty seven and pregnant with her only child, Michael. 

From this sentence alone I’ve already generated more facts and questions: 

  • Historical Fact: Sheila had a baby called Michael when she was twenty seven. 
  • Present Question: What’s Shelia’s relationship like with Michael? 
  • Present Question: Where is Michael? 
  • Historical Question: Did Shelia choose to have one child? 
  • Historical Question: Who is Michael’s father? 

These simple facts and questions present some really delicious branching out of possibilities. I encourage you to jot down as many as you can and highlight the ones that feel juicy to answer. Follow the joy. I guarantee you’ll gather a lot of information to play with in a very short space of time. 

Personally I find this work far more exciting than labouring through a biography. That kind of formalisation can come a little bit later if needs be. 


The Wound and the Ghost 

What is the lie your character believes about themselves? How does it haunt them? 


The People-Pleaser: 

Could be the result of being bullied at school; this character believes they are unworthy of friendship and connection unless they’re pleasing others in some way. The people-pleaser is invested in controlling how other’s perceive them in order to be liked. This could lead them to be seen as needy, try hard, or inauthentic. 

The Defeatist: 

Could be the result of an individual whose parents had no faith in them. This person protects themselves from the disappointment of ‘inevitable’ failure by not trying at all. They have no faith in themselves because they never had a cheerleader during their formative years.  

The Cheater: 

Could be the result of intense heartbreak and a misplaced belief that eventually every person they dare to love will abandon them. This formative heartbreak doesn’t have to be romantic – it can be the result of parental divorce.  

These wounds aren’t always ‘negative’ per se. An inversion of sorts could be: 

The Egoist: 

Someone with an inflated sense of self-importance might have been objectified by their parents. This belief could have been compounded by private education and the constant messaging they were entitled to anything in life regardless of merit. Boris Johnson springs to mind… 

The wound creates the ghost, the ghost haunts the character. The resulting warpy self-perception places a filter on the character’s life-lens and ultimately informs how they act and react. Tie this wound in thematically with your story to keep your character propelling towards their super-objective.   



‘The improvisor has to be like a man walking backwards. He sees where he has been, but he pays no attention to the future. His story can take him anywhere, but he must still ‘balance’ it, and give it shape, by remembering incidents that have been shelved and reincorporating them.’  ~ Keith Johnstone

Characteristics: Inner and outer life 

In life we can never truly know a person because we’re not in their head (if we all went around spewing our inner monologues we’d have no mates!). But in fiction you get to know exactly what’s going on inside and outside. Knowing this contrast will add depth to your scene work.  

How does your character present to the world verses how they’re truly feeling? Are they authentic? Do they mask? How? What means do they employ to get their needs met? 

Pick a couple of characteristics; one for the the outer (how they outwardly present to the world) and one for the inner (how truly feel on the inside). A mixture of positive and negative* is always interesting. Picking forces of antagonism for your character to privately wrestle with will generate lots of detail for you to play with. 

*A word of caution regarding negative characteristics: people tend to regard themselves in a positive light. For example, a manipulative character is far more likely to see themselves as persuasive, ’irresistible, or even ‘benevolent’. This isn’t to say you can’t pick ‘manipulative’ as a characteristic, but keeping this in mind is humanising and helps avoid stereotyping.  


Write a monologue or scene or where everyone says explicitly what they want and unreservedly expresses their inner characteristics. Be sure your characters “yes and” each other to keep things moving along. Don’t overthink it, just bash it out. In fact, I encourage you to be as cringe as possible. Think of it as a rough technical sketch upon which you’ll be layering depth and texture – but first you need something on the page to edit! 

Once you’ve got these bare bones, rewrite the monologue/scene and bury all you’ve discovered in subtext using outer characteristics. Where do the inner and outer cross over and emerge? 

Let’s use Sheila as an example. I’m going to riff on some of the things we know to be true about her in order to create a scenario and explore her inner and outer life. 

Let’s say it’s 5pm and Shelia’s neighbour Jan has just popped by. Sheila really can’t be arsed with this, she’s been out all day benevolently holding court with the lonely youth and she’s knackered. Consequently, she’s feeling irritable on the inner but she’s going to present as polite on the outer. 

Selecting contrasting / antagonising wants and/or characteristics for Jan is a great way to heighten and explore the drama. 

Character  Want  Inner Characteristic  Outer Characteristic 
Sheila   Make Jan go away in order to eat her dinner in peace  Irritable  Polite 
Jan  Make Shiela invite her in, in order to feel connected  Lonely  Chirpy  


The Cringe Version 

An urgent knock on the door 

J: Sheila? Hello? Are you there? 

Jan raps on the door again. 

S: Jesus Christ Jan, I’m not deaf. Yes? What is it? What do you want? 

J: I was feeling a bit lonely. 

S: That sounds like a you problem if I’m honest, Jan. 

J: I baked these brownies and thought I’d use them as an excuse to come over. 

S: Whilst I do feel sorry for you, Jan, I’m just about to sit down and eat my dinner. I not really up for any company.  

J: Oh please, just a quick visit.  

S: Are you crying? 

J: Sorry.  

S: Fine. Come in.  

Jan goes to take a seat. 

S: No! No sitting. I don’t want you getting comfortable. You’ve got five minutes. 


The Subtext-y Version 

A tentative knock at the door. Sheila looks through the peephole.  

S: Shit.  

J: Sheila? 

Another knock, slightly bolder this time. 

J: Shelia! Cooeee! 

Jan bends down to look through the letterbox. Sheila throws herself to the floor badly. She clutches her varicose veined leg in agony and does a silent scream. 

J: Sheila?! Oh my god, she’s had a fall! Somebody help! 

S: No no, it’s fine! 

(Staggering to her feet and opening the door.) 

Sorry. Couldn’t open the — carpet’s coming away from the….double…naplock. 

J: Naplock?  

S: Yes, the serrated /  

J: Serrated?  

S: The joiny thing that the carpet / goes into 

J: Joiny thing?! 

S: (Brightly) Never mind!  

J: You’re quite the builder, Shiela. 

S: Nah – university of youtube – everything’s on there. 

J: Youtube? Bleep bloop bloop bloop bloop bloop.  

(Chuckles daintily 

I’m not a computer person myself. 

S: Oh well. 

Awkward silence. Sheila glances back towards her dinner. 

J: Bit of a whizz in the kitchen, though. Baked you these. 

S: Oh, thank you. You shouldn’t have.  

Sheila reaches for the box of brownies.  

J: Okay if I come in and put them on a plate or something? 

S: Oh… I was just about to sit down and eat my dinner, Jan… 

J: It’s just I’ve only got the one tupperware, you see. I’ve got a casserole in the slow cooker needs decanting. 

S: Sure. 

Shelia puts an empty plate on the table and takes a seat. Jan looks expectantly at the only remaining chair which has a pile of laundry on it. Shelia tucks into her dinner resolutely. 


Aaaand scene. 

Over the next few days try to observe yourself during interactions – how are you presenting on the outer compared to the inner?  


Small Issue About The Bigger Thing 

Let’s work on a scenario by creating a bit of conflict. Discern a private worry for your character (internal obstacle). Maybe they’ve got money worries? Maybe they’re struggling with their body image? Perhaps they’re sleep deprived because… (you decide). Now think of a smaller, external obstacle. Maybe they’ve spent a tenner on popcorn at the cinema and it’s stale? Maybe their significant other dared to ask them a simple question? Maybe their neighbour put the bins out over their doorway?  

Ordinarily, these things could be dealt with rationally but because your character’s wrestling with an internal obstacle the stakes are going to feel higher so they’re going react disproportionately to the circumstances. 

For example: 

  • Person with money worries —> spends a tenner on popcorn that’s stale = conflict with the server. The stakes are going to feel high for this person because they’ve spent their precious cash on something that’s disappointing.  
  • Person who’s struggling with body image —> their significant other asks them a simple question = conflict. The stakes feel high for this person because they’re in a low mood and they’re going to take it out on their significant other. 
  • Person who’s sleep deprived —> neighbour leaves bins across their doorway = conflict. The stakes are going to feel high for this person because they’re really tired and this is yet another thing on the list of things that’s pissing them off – the final straw, in fact. 

How nuclear you decide to go in terms of reaction is up to you – play around with your character employing a variety of means to get their needs met. For example, the person with money worries may initially try to charm the server, then rush them, then get angry* and insult them? Keep the inner and outer characteristics in mind. 

*A note on anger – as an emotion anger is hard to sustain for prolonged periods so use it sparingly and try add nuance. If your character goes completely nuclear what’s the fallout? Are they profusely apologetic when they come back to earth and catch themselves? Do they tearfully try to explain? Do they double down and gaslight the other party? It’s far more interesting to watch a character try to overcome an obstacle that it is to watch them ‘play’ an obstacle i.e. surrendering completely to an emotion (anger – or crying for that matter). 

This type of inner and outer duality can generate lots of lovely knots of conflict and misunderstanding for your character to overcome. Use this exercise within scenes when you’re formalising action or in isolation to help tap into the individual voice and foibles of your character.  

That’s all folks! Good luck! 

About Jasmine Naziha Jones…

Jasmine is a writer and performer. Her debut play, Baghdaddy, premiered downstairs at the Royal Court Theatre in 2022 and was nominated for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize 2024. She was commissioned by The Globe Theatre as part of ‘Burnt At The Stake’, a co-production with Hannah Khalil and Morgan Lloyd Malcolm. Jasmine has written several short plays and co-wrote the musical ‘The Sisters’ which premiered at Latitude Festival. She has several scripted projects in development and was writer on attachment at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Like that? Check out these…

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Seeing through the eyes of all your characters: Anna Jordan – The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting (

Published on:
5 Jul 2024


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