How to Write a Play: Characters

A look at how to bring depth and authenticity to your characters and plot when writing for the stage.

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Follows: How to Write a Play

In the first part of this series of essays I reflected on the impossibility of true realism in the play format, not least because of such practical concerns as audibility. The need for a certain level of volume will affect how you choose to construct a sentence.

A further consideration concerns the actor’s relationship with the script. An actor will perform better when truly engaged, so try to get the best from them by not relegating them to a tiny role. If a character’s part is played out in only one scene, why not write another scene using an entirely new character, written with the express purpose of further employing the actor, allowing them to double up? Another clear benefit from this tallies with my next suggestion.

Once your play is underway and the story and characters established, make a list of the characters and count their lines. You will likely find two or three with less to do than the others. Now take these characters and create a new scene using only them. Apart from the benefit I previously mentioned of allowing an actor to really invest in a play, the new scene need have no real relevance to the plot, allowing you licence to have fun with it.

The audience, their minds temporarily led away from the central narrative, will be delighted to become reacquainted, while secondary plots, even those that lead nowhere, add levels and give depth.

A paradigm of this technique of layers was a Canadian comedy show, which ran for several series, entitled Corner Gas. In each episode three separate plots were developed, utilising all eight of its major characters in various groupings. The action would leap constantly from one of the three strands to another as they were gradually, over a mere 22 or so minutes, plaited together to create a satisfying whole.

Of course this was a television show with jump cuts and flashbacks readily at its disposal. But if applied well, there’s no reason such a technique shouldn’t work on the stage.

It’s said that there are basically seven story variants, to whit: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy and rebirth. It is also said ‘write what you know’, and it’s perfectly possible to combine any or all of this advice. Perhaps you’re writing a whodunnit set in an old manor house. Have you ever been in an old manor house? Have you ever been party to solving a murder? The former quite possibly; the latter, less likely. The chances are you will draw upon an old film or book you’ve seen or read, robbing the story of any chance of genuinely experienced detail.

However, have you ever been in, say, a crumbling relationship? Far more likely. Your chances of knowing how the protagonists would feel are improved a thousandfold. With this firsthand knowledge you can proceed to place your story wherever in time and space you choose. Your imaginings will be given clarity by your knowledge of the essentials of the story.

But how do you begin, and having begun, how do you keep going? In my next essay I shall discuss difficulties with writer’s block.

Mr Todd is a published playwright and Director of Hags Ahoy Theatre Company.

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