Dodgy Characters

Like the Clappers was back in April – hosted kindly by The Arcola we had a great evening up in Dalston. The focus of the workshop was looking at Character – what this means and how to write better characters.

When working with character I think there are two ways in. One is to think about what that character wants, probably the most important thing about them, if they don’t have wants and desires they are dead weight. There is some really useful literature about this that I will post in my next blog. The other way in, that I will focus on in this blog is what seem like arbitrary provocations that somehow unpick what that character’s essence is. And the two ‘games’ below are ways I like to scratch deeper into what a character is about.

We began with a simple exercise, and one that you can do now. Choose your favourite song. Got it? Now pick three words to describe that song. According to some team builder I once did a training session with, and one that had nothing to do with theatre, these three words are a good description of you. I don’t necessarily believe it, but it’s a fun provocation and one that can be done with any character your writing. What would their favourite song be? How would they describe it? Incidentally the first time I did it my words were ‘Lively, Intense and A bit weird.’ So you make your own mind up how accurate it is. What I think it does prove is that I play fast and loose when given instructions and don’t quite understand the concept of one word descriptions.

For the next game I asked everyone to think about a character they are currently writing, possibly one they are struggling with. Then I asked a series of questions that the writers  answered about their chosen character. Again, this is a task you can easily do now if you have a character to interrogate. It’s important to say that the answers have to be what this person is, not what their favourite thing is, the questions I asked were as follows:

What time of year are they?
What musical instrument?
What colour?
What kitchen utensil?
What part of London?
What country?
What mode of transport/vehicle are they?
What drink?
What food?
What plant are they?
What animal?
What era are they?
What song?
What religion?
What item of clothing?
What feeling/emotion?

Once you’ve answered these questions – in reasonably quick succession. Then the next part of the exercise is to delete half of your answers, the ones that aren’t quite right, or aren’t as bob on as the others. This should leave you with 8 words that describe your character. You then have to delete half again, leaving yourself with the 4 most accurate. Finally, delete one last word, the one of the four that you are least happy with, ending with three things that your character is – and its surprising how revealing it can be to realise your character is a ‘blue, whisk, french horn’. But as with all of these things, the endeavour is just as important. Why are they a ‘whisk’ not a ‘soup spoon’? Why is that a better description than ‘Easter’?

The questions are reasonably arbitrary, the ones listed above are by no means the only ones you can use. But they’re not a bad starting point. Obviously you can add or remove them as you like – it’s useful to choose questions with lots of answers with quite evocative meanings. It can be useful to have a list set away somewhere to ask yourself when you want to find out a bit more about your character rather than making them up on the spot, particularly if you already have a character in mind. This is an exercise that I first did while assistant directing, and was nothing about writing the characters – it was to help the actors to understand these people better, but I think it can also be really useful to help writers understand their characters better too!

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