To write believable characters, we need to know them inside and out. As a playwright, you should always be interrogating the characters within your play. If we know them well, we can make their reactions to the situations we put them in all the more real.
The problem is, how do you achieve this state of zen between writer and character? How can you decide on life-changing details for them at the drop of a hat? This is where the fun comes in, the best way to build a personality around your characters is to put them through a series of character exercises.
1. Internet date your character
Let’s take a look at external projection.
People have a view of themselves that they like to project to the outside world. If you read some dating profiles on an internet dating site, these are the aspects of the person’s character that they like to give to others.
Write a profile for your character. As well as age, sex, job and the place they live; think about smaller details in their lives. Their hobbies, where they have been on holiday, music they enjoy, favourite film and sense of humour. You may want to think what they would look for in a romantic partner.
When you write your play, this is what your character wants others to see.
2. Give your character a sleepless night
In this exercise, we look at your characters internal self.
If you’ve ever woken in the night and your brain starts thinking about all the things that are worrying you, this is your internal self at work.
Write an internal monologue for your character containing their hopes, fears and anxieties. Historical events that come back to haunt them and future things that they don’t want to face. Show how the character deals with their sleepless situation. Do they bury the fears? Do they tell themselves things will be fine? Are they generally optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
These buried worries and internal visions of themselves will give your character depth.
3. Projecting to different people
We all tend to change our personality slightly depending on the people we are talking to. When starting a conversation, think about the hierarchy between the characters. Think also about what the other person thinks of the character. Write the following short scenes between your character and another person:
- Your character is late for work. Write a scene where they explain their lateness to their boss.
- Your character catches a junior or someone working for them, downloading holiday snaps to FaceBook. How do they deal with this?
- A Police Officer quizzes your character about some money missing from where they work or from their home.
- A friend wants to know why the police were talking to them, but start off the conversation by asking you about an event (football match, wedding, etc.) Make the friend bossy.
- Repeat, making the friend shy and nervous.
4. Situational personality
In this exercise, you are going to give your character a P-type. This can change as the play goes along especially if your character goes on a journey.
The P-types are: Prisoner, Pirate, Participant, Passenger.
- Prisoner: A person trapped in their life or in a situation. They are struggling to find a way to free themselves.
- Pirate: Someone who deals with difficult situations by rebelling or causing trouble. Violent or argumentative characters are pirates.
- Participant: A person that is striving to succeed or reach a goal. These characters are doers.
- Passenger: A character swept along by events. They are happy for things to be this way as long as the events aren’t too traumatic. They tend to be lazy or weak-willed.
5. Reacting to a crisis
So far we have given our subject their own internal and external characters. We have looked at how others see them and how they react to that. We have given them a situational P-type but we have not thought about the unknown character. This is the character we become in a crisis, when our survival instincts click in.
Write a short scene with your character and two others where they are suddenly placed in a crisis:
- An aeroplane on a runway suddenly fills with smoke. Your character is sat far from the door.
- The character is in a post office when a gunman comes in to rob the place
- There is a ticking parcel on their train.
Does your character react differently to the situation then after the crisis has passed?
Those are just five short examples of what are potentially limitless character exercises out there – so build yourself a workbook full of them and you’ll have yourself a bulletproof playwrights toolkit ready to go whenever you decide to go through that self-torture of writing a play again!
Like this article? Check out the rest of our How To Write section for more helpful articles around the craft of playwrighting!
Sharon has worked in education for most of her life. In 2001 she helped launch a theatre group in Hampshire focusing on the local community. Upon moving back to the North West, Sharon launched Make it Write, an organization dedicated to help new writers particularly writing for performance.