Monday, November 17, 2008

What a Character WANTS; What a Character NEEDS

Now that you have become familiar with your character, it is time to put them into action. One way to do this is to focus on the character’s goals or, what it is that the character WANTS or NEEDS to achieve. To organize a story around this idea, I suggest trying the following organizer. Definitions of each term are provided, but we’ll take a look at an example a little further down the page.

CHARACTER – Character name goes here. You may also include any information from the Character Biography that you feel is important.

WANT/NEED – A better life.

EMERGENCY – What makes this day different from other days? Or… why does the character suddenly decide to go and get what they want/need?

OBSTACLES – People and things that stand in the character’s way.

ACTIONS – What the character does to get past the obstacles.

CONCLUSION – How the story ends.

Now, let’s take Cinderella as an example of a character.

The story of Cinderella has multiple versions, adaptations, and retellings, so when I have approached this in workshops everyone has a slightly different take on the story. (For three versions from the Russian, Chinese and Algonquin cultures, check out Cinderella: The World’s Favorite Fairytale by Lowell Swortzell.) To make things easier, we’ll go with a version that most people are likely familiar with - the Perrault/Disney version.

Cinderella wants, or it may be more appropriate to say that Cinderella NEEDS, a better life. She is trapped in a horrible home with a stepmother and stepsisters who demand that she do all of their work – cooking, cleaning, and making their clothes. It is an abusive situation and she needs to get out.

One day, a message arrives from the palace. The Prince is looking for a wife and plans a ball to which he is inviting all of the young women in the kingdom. Cinderella sees this as an opportunity to achieve her goal of a better life, but her Stepmother and Stepsisters prevent Cinderella from going. However, Cinderella gets help from her Fairy Godmother who magically transforms the animals and objects in the house into the coach, gown, and attendants who assist in getting Cinderella to the ball. However, this assistance comes with a catch. Cinderella must leave the ball by midnight. At that time, the magic will wear off and everything will turn back into what it once was.

So, Cinderella attends the ball, avoids being spotted by her Stepmother and Stepsisters, dances with the Prince, and leaves the palace just as the clock strikes midnight. However, she loses one of her glass slippers at the palace, which the Prince then uses to find her.

That’s enough information for us to go back to the organizer. Given that version of the story, I might fill things out in this way…

CHARACTER – Cinderella

WANT/NEED – A better life

EMERGENCY – The invitation to the ball asks for all young women to attend. Stepmother and the Stepsisters cannot overrule the Prince, so she has a chance to go to the ball, which just might offer her the opportunity to get a better life.

OBSTACLES – Stepmother, Stepsisters, Time.

ACTIONS – Completes the tasks her Stepfamily gives her, Accepts help from the Fairy Godmother, Dances with the Prince, Returns home as the magic wears off, but now is disappointed.


We know how the classic versions of this story end, but I will leave the conclusion undecided to demonstrate that the story does not need to end one particular way. Depending upon the author/playwright’s theme, a story can end any number of ways, based on what the author wants the audience to learn. But we can get into theme another time.

Now back to your character. Try to place your character into this outline and see how the story might unfold. I encourage you to try some different versions by changing the character’s want, obstacles or action. How does that change the story? What do you think an audience might learn from each version of the story?

Another thing to consider is just as each character experiences obstacles along the way, they might also find help. Help can come in the form of people like Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, or things like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, or information like a Jedi Padawan’s training in the ways of the Force. See what works for the story you want to tell.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Building Character

It has been an action-packed few weeks since the last post. I taught two playwriting and drama workshops for teachers – one at my alma mater and one at the annual NJEA Convention in Atlantic City this past weekend. These were great experiences and I learned a lot while running the workshops and look forward to hearing from these teachers about how they may implement playwriting and drama into their curriculum. Thank you to all who participated.

Now, back to playwriting…

Characters should function in the world of your play as a real person, or being, inside that world. They have certain ways of moving, thinking, and interaction with other people or beings, just as we all do in “reality.” Giving a character a name is a simple way to begin fleshing them out.

At the Atlantic City convention, the participants completed a Self-Questionnaire similar to the one in the previous blog post. After that, I asked everyone to take their own name and recreate themselves as a new character by changing at least their last name… some changed both. (I learned this activity during a workshop run by the Director of Education from Young Playwrights, Inc., an organization that runs an excellent national contest for young playwrights. A few former NJ Young Playwrights winners have also been recognized in the Young Playwrights contest. Check them out at If you are stuck for a character idea, or a character name at least, this is a simple way to get started. Some of the names the Atlantic City group came up with are:

Jean Mercedes
Nicole Moodie
Fran Active
Fresca Visions
Calliope Sky

Do you have an idea of what some of these characters might be like? How old are each of these characters? What do they do for fun? Do they work? What kind of work might they do? What does each character want in life?

Another way to get deeper into a character is to use a Character Biography Sheet. In his book The Playwrights Process, Buzz McLaughlin provides samples of mini-form and long-form biographies. At Playwrights Theatre, we use an adaptation of his Mini-form biography that asks a playwright to consider the character's dreams, secrets, fears, and conflicts. These are all great places that might spark an interesting story idea.

I’ve often found that when I can envision my character I have an easier time writing for him or her. Then I write a description, or even a short (very short) story, to place that person in a location and to get a sense of how they move, think, and interact with others. This doesn’t need to be something that becomes part of the play, but just something that I can use to get a clearer sense of who the story is about and how they function. Once that is set, its time to give them something to want and a problem to face. More about that in a few days.

Happy writing!