Now in it’s 14th year, the Bruntwood Prize has had some brilliant free resources for developing writers. Throughout 2019, we’ll go back into the archives to re-post some materials that haven’t been available on this site before.
Cheryl Martin is a director, but started out as writer. She was writer-in-residence at Oldham Coliseum and Contact Theatre amongst others. She has since been an Associate Director for New Writing at Contact, a director-in-residence at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre and directed at the Royal Exchange.
If you want to work a bit on your characters, start right here.
To get the best out of it, don’t do all three parts at once. Pause for a day or a week in between, to let your ideas settle. Then come to them with a fresh mind.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
The really first thing is that there is no right or wrong way to write anything. I use the word ‘should’ a lot in this tutorial, but that’s to make it easier to read. I don’t believe in ‘should’s’.
There are no absolutes, no magic bullets – but there are things that can help. You can try what I suggest here. Use it only if it helps open up possibilities for you. That’s what it’s meant to do.
FIRST THING: Know them as well as you know yourself.
Choose characters you can live with for a long time, going deeper and deeper, changing and refining and re-inventing.
When you create characters, you have to know everything about them. Think – what do you know about yourself? Your likes, dislikes, loves, hatreds, fears: you should know that about your characters. You should know their parents, grandparents, first school, first success, first failure, first disappointment. You should know everything about them, from birth to the moment they first step onto your stage.
Write a life history, birth to first step on stage. Take your time doing it. Go decade by decade, then year by year. As time gets closer to when they first enter your stage, month by month and day by day.
A colour he’d never wear. Food that almost sends her into unseemly physical pleasure. The best friend forever – forgotten till they die in their 30s. The Facebook pest who keeps asking to be friended no matter how long you ignore him.
You’re creating details, lovely details, more than you will ever need, so that when you want the perfect one to encapsulate a moment onstage, you’ll know it. Even if you didn’t put it into this initial splurge of life you create for your character, the act of inventing so many details will lead you to the one you still need to invent.
Think of your character’s life as a great big pie. For your play, you only need the smallest sliver of that pie. Just a taste. But if you didn’t put in enough ingredients, there’s not much there to give it flavour.
Fill your characters’ inner worlds: give them a life. Write it all down.
Once you done the life history, give your characters crucial memories.
Write all these:
Choose their best childhood memory, and then their worst.
Choose the funniest thing that ever happened to them as children, then the most embarrassing.
Choose the moment when they knew they were no longer children.
Choose their happiest adult moment, and then their saddest.
Choose the moment when they most felt life was wonderful.
Choose the moment in their entire lives when they felt most disappointed in someone else.
Choose the moment in their entire lives when they felt most disappointed in themselves [if there is one].
Choose the funniest thing they ever saw happen to someone else.
That should give you a lot of good material to draw on for both your character and your story.
SECOND THING. Know them better than you know yourself.
It’s a truism to say that we never see ourselves as others see us. Most of the fun in a good play is that we see and understand more about the characters than they ever do about themselves. Except, maybe, at the end.
You’re not only the characters’ Creator, you’re their shrink. You know what their unconscious desires are, what they really need, what they truly want.
For a character to come alive on stage, they’ve got to want something, even if it’s simply to be left alone in silence.
What does the character think she wants?
What’s stopping her from getting it?
What does the character unconsciously want, and what’s stopping her from getting that?
Let’s take a story with a seemingly simple character motivation:
Jo wants to win the X-Factor, because she wants to be famous.
What’s stopping her from getting it? She has a good voice but lacks the super-confidence of the reality show winner.
- That’s what Jo thinks she wants.
What she unconsciously wants is for her mother to believe she’s not a failure.
What’s stopping her from getting this recognition from her mother? The mother lost her first husband because he couldn’t stand the financial pressure of the new baby, and left. To her mother, Jo looks, sounds, acts like the rejecting husband: a loser. And selfish to boot.
What gives you a lot more story. Jo, the character, and our other character, her mother, don’t realise the subtext of their relationship – at least not at the start of the story.
But – there’s more.
What does the character actually need?
What’s stopping her from getting it?
Does she get it?
To continue with our example:
Jo thinks she wants to win X-Factor and be famous, but lacks self-confidence. This stems from what she really wants, which is to have her mother stop believing she’s a failure.
But what she actually needs is to believe in herself and stop waiting on her mother’s approval. What’s stopping her from doing that is the natural child’s reliance on the parent. Will she get beyond needing her mother’s approval? That’s what the story will tell us.
A lot of characters have only one layer of motivation – what do they want, what’s stopping them? That creates a basic conflict. To give a character the layers on layers of motivation, conflict, contradiction and inner confusion that makes her or him feel real, I think you need more layers.
This exercise can give you a good start to making a character who deserves attention.
One other point – a lot of people think only the main character gets this much detail. I think in really good plays, all the characters – even the walk-on’s – have this much detail.
When every character is real and fighting for what they want on stage, you have to make sure you know who is the real main character.
LAST THING – FOR NOW…
This is a series of questions I always ask myself when I’m writing and usually give to everyone who writes for me. It helps me clarify issues surrounding the play and focus the action.
To me, the questions are the same whether the play is conventional or mad, rad, and deeply conceptual.
Answer these [you’ll recognise some of them!]:
Who is your main character?
What is she searching for?
Why did I want to do this?
What is the central question that I want to explore?
How do I want the audience to respond to this piece?
What does the main character need?
What does she want unconsciously [very different from what she thinks she wants]?
Why do I want to write this?
Why is this story important to me?
Why do I want to tell this particular story?
What do I think I will learn by exploring this theme?
What’s the story about?
Whose story is it?
What does she think she wants?
What’s stopping her from getting it?
Do I like her?
Do I care if she gets what she wants?
What is the character forced to react to?
These questions push a bit deeper into the character, the story, and into you. You have to be honest with yourself about why you’re compelled to write this scenario or drawn to that one. I never show anyone my answers to these – they’re to help me make sure I’m not quite as blind about my own motivations as my characters might be. It helps.
I hope all this helps. It’s just a start, not a blueprint.
Good luck and have fun!