Trustworthy Characters

I said in my previous blog there was some amazing books I find myself turning to again and again for character work. To be honest these books are the ones I find myself coming back to for most of my consultations. But there all have some particular highlights for character. The books are Into the Woods by John Yorke, Different Every Night by Mike Alfreds and The Actor and the Target by Declan Donnellan (go out now and buy all of them!).

Into the Woods is not specifically about theatre, but about the art of storytelling and takes in novels, TV and (in particularl) film and it is fantastic! I can highly recommend it for anyone working in storytelling, there are so many gems in this book and well worth the £8.99. ‘Act IV – The Road Back, Night’ is basically all about character and can be read in isolation for some really useful advice but I can strongly recommend the whole book! There’s some interesting stuff on the psychology of character, Jung and Freud and ego defence mechanisms. But a couple of quotes to whet your appetite:

Good dialogue, then, is a manifestation of behaviour, not an explanation of it. Great dialogue shows us who our characters are. Telling is showing – it reveals character.

P.150 Into the Woods John Yorke

and – he is in fact quoting Jed Mercurio, the creator of Cardiac Arrest, Bodies and Line of Duty in this next quote – but he does a lot of pointing you towards good work of others, something I value…

‘Dialogue is the least important element of my writing. A lot of writers spend an inordinate amount of time polishing dialogue to try to fix problems, when the problem is much more likely to lie in structure or character’

P.162 Into the Woods John York (quoting Jed Mercruio)

Mike Alfreds book Different Every Night is another staple, I’ve worked with lots of people who love his writings and his teaching and I use a lot of it in my work. This book is a handbook to his method and although I take inspiration from a lot of it I don’t use it religiously. It is also worth saying it is about directing theatre, not writing a play. However, this is something that actors will be doing when interrogating your work so your plays had better stand up to that rigour! He has some lists that he suggests all actors should do for their character before embarking on a part (and the director should do these for all the characters in the play!) they are:

To discover what information the play actually gives us about a character, make the following lists:

  1. Facts about the character
  2. What the character says about him- or herself
  3. What the character says about other people – including those mentioned but not seen in the play
  4. What other people say about the character
  5. Imagery used by the character or by others to describe the character (optional)

Work through the text separately for each list. (If nothing else, this ensures that an actor has read the whole play four times at least before the start of rehearsal.)

P. 206 Different Every Night Mike Alfreds

Now as you can tell, Mike Alfreds is pretty work intensive and he likes to ensure that there is a lot of brain work done when putting on a show. I’m not sure I would necessarily want my actors to sit down and study in this way – although I know lots of actors who find it very useful – however I think it can be revealing for writers to do this sort of work as it can highlight what you have actually written, not what you think you have.

The other lists that Mike Alfreds clarifies for me are Objectives. Now say what you want about these and I certainly don’t go as all in as Mike Alfreds in my work, however, this I find useful information:


The super-objective is the character’s overarching purpose in life; the through-line is the character’s purpose through the context of the play; the scene objective is the character’s purpose from situation to situation. Super-objectives motivate through-lines that motivate scene objectives. The counter-objective is a strong character drive in conflict with the super-objective.

P. 64 Different Every Night Mike Alfreds

Now I think there is a full discussion to be had about whether a character can have one super-objective or if that is decided by the actor/director/production’s interpretation, but regardless of that, I think the writer should have a very good idea of their interpretation. The counter-objectives and the conflicts these imply can also be very useful, particularly with the help of Declan Donnellan.

I love The Actor and the Target (by Declan Donnellan) it’s beautifully simple and very eloquently explained. It’s not about writing, it’s about acting but inevitably it highlights that good writing is required for good acting. There is one section in particular I would like to mention it’s about dualities.

The Split Reaction

If I always have something to win and something to lose, then presumably what I am doing must also split in two. For I must always be trying to bring about what I want to happen. And at the same time, I must always be trying to prevent what I don’t want to happen.


Thinking in doubles


It is not true that the actor cannot play two things at once. We are always playing two things at once. But these two things are highly specific and precisely opposed. We must play in doubles because there is always something to be lost and something to be won.

P.73 The Actor and the Target Declan Donnellan

I think all of the above can be vastly useful when thinking, or struggling with a character, they all combine together to really bring a character to life, with specific, precise consideration. This is when you get your Post-Its and big pieces of paper out and have a play, see how it affects the story if they have different objectives. See if they have objectives in certain scenes, because if not they’re dead and shouldn’t be in the scene in the first place!

This is very much a brief mention and reading the whole of these books will really change your approach (at least each of them did for me) not that any of it is rocket science, but reading these books often feel like a kind of magic to me.


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