Notes about Character from Lee and Naked Playwriting

last revised 2/15/08


In a nutshell, your character has to want something very badly, and they are now, in the present tense of the play, ready to act to get it, and yet the antagonist, who also wants something very badly, is getting in the way.  I'm starting to think about all this in terms of surface desires vs. core desires (which can be compared to Frost's idea that "a poem is about one thing, and one thing more.").  The play's action is when the event, or what could also be called the "catalyst" (NP p. 122; a catalyst can be a character too p. 129), gets the characters acting to obtain their desires, but something gets in the way over and over again (the antagonist?  the character's own flaws/shadow?).

I'm kind of thinking about the protagonist's flaws being linked to a key wound (or motivation p. 122) from the character's backstory (this is called "The Root" or key cause of one's sexuality in the movie But I'm A Cheerleader!).  If you are wounded in some key way, say by a snake, you will always have a fear of snakes, and then your flaw is that you can't save people in the movie Snakes on a Plane, nor will you be able to save yourself, unless...your baby is in danger!  So, babies (and baby's) can be catalysts, right?  But don't use this high concept Hollywood ideation at home when you write.

I like what NP says on p. 112 about constructing characters.  The "(de)construction method" approaches things from a list-making mentality, or the assemblage, Frankenstein mentality--put all these traits together, and voila!  But the second method, the dialogue-first method, sees characters as already in motion, and thus the only way to understand the character is to let them "take action" which for me means start by letting the character speak, or start writing down a conversation they might have and see what comes from it.  Obviously both methods can be useful, though.

Here are some of my favorite "(de)constructive" character questions from NP p. 113-14, favorite because they get right to the core problems that can create good, dramatic conflicts:

The protagonist should really not be a TYPE in contemporary theater.  Audiences are too sophisticated for a traditional hero (look at The Incredibles if you want evidence of this--he's a fat, out-of-work, has-been superhero who's wife has a fat butt, and who's daughter is a neurotic goth-head, all of which is why the movie felt so fresh).  The protagonist should be more complex than a mere type (that's why flaws are important).

Write what you know?  If you do base the protagonist on yourself, the protagonist still has to come together artistically--to have that one core desire be the motivation for everything that happens.  

LEE: a person who has yet again had another cat die tragically, and who has to live in a mess of pet hair and pet bodily fluids, and who is so anal that she doesn't know where to begin to clean anything, so it just gets worse and worse.  She hems, she haws, her brain goes here, then there when she talks.  She hates people.  Sort of.  She hates the phone.  Her knees hurt.  She drinks too much.  Her stomach probably has ulcers or cancer.  She is a hypochondriac.  She is slowly dying as is everyone on the planet.  She has a wife now, and wonders if she's getting complacent while lying in bed cuddling and watching CNN or How It's Made.  She thinks about mortality too much.  The cats.  Laura's son drowning.  Other people's aging parents.  Her own aging parents.  People who are shot by husbands or crazy white guys.  Her wife's heart problem.  Every phone call could be the bad phone call.  She is just trying to get by.  Sleep.  Prep.  Grade.  Sleep.  Think about exercising.  Sleep.  Read.  Cuddle.  Sleep.  Buy Gatoraide and bologna.  Sleep.  There's no key wound, but many.  And there are many pleasures and happinesses she could never write about, like her wife, who is beautiful, a model, and a great kisser, but how can she write about that?

Even this is too focused, much less messy than I am.  Here's one of my creative alter egos (a persona), and she is very focused:

RHONDA: a character based on Lee, but who is not Lee.  Rhonda's surface desire is to be in love and have a lot of sex. Her core desire is to be happy, or at least she thinks so, but what is happiness?  If it's sex, doesn't sex get old after a while?  Rhonda's desire is her flaw--she is always in love with someone, or wanting to be in love with someone, specifically Cheryl who is a complex antagonist, and usually unavailable.  Unfortunately, she always wants someone to be equally in love with her.  Her backstory is that she grew up in a conservative, religious family, and she thinks this is her key wound.  Rhonda is both pithy and brazen and shy and neurotic, and everything she says reflects this as well as her competing desires.  She does not hem and haw except in the way she talks around certain issues like sex or love.  But she never says, "Uh," or "Well," or "You know."  Sometimes the women she dates hate people, but she does not hate people.  She is always sexually pent up.  She is always noticing women's bodies, their beauty, their distance, and then the scars that show when they happen to get close.  No one knows about her knees or her stomach problems.  No one knows she has the ability to fall in love with a cat.  No one knows she has a phobia about talking on the phone or an obsession with mortality (that will be another character).

There are many things I, as a writer, don't know about Rhonda, and that's ok.  If I put in a detail about her that doesn't have to do anything with characterization and the drama at hand, it gets cut.  The cats are too pathetic, and too stereotypical, so they don't even go in at all.  

The antagonist should not be any less complex than the protagonist (NP p. 123; also think about Gordon Lish's advice about avoiding black and white hats, or Jung's ideas about The Shadow NP. p. 135).  Here's one of the characters I have worked with for a while:

CHERYL: a character based on someone I know, but who is not that person.  Cheryl is a protagonist, yet not a simple type.  Her surface desire is to not upset the cart.  Her core desire is to have a good life based on curiosity, pleasure, and cigarettes.   Cheryl doesn't know what love is, or this is what she often says. Her backstory is that she grew up being continuously belittled, being constantly told how one should do things in the proper fashion, thus this is her key wound, and perhaps also her flaw Thus she also wants to be bad sometimes, and drink too much, often with Rhonda, and have sex with anyone if the moment arises all without consequences, without guilt.  Everything she says reflects these competing desires.  But Cheryl's antagonist is Dawn, her wife, and they are theoretically monogamous.   Sometimes she wants to give Rhonda what she wants, but there are always multiple guilt issues in the way.