What drives a good play? Plot or character? Well, both have to be compelling for a play to sell. A good story and identifiable characters are key to connecting with your audience. So what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Does a playwright form a plot around characters or does she develop the characters in service of the plot? Too much emphasis on plot and you could end up with “Downton Abbey”-like machinations that don’t ring true to human nature. Too much emphasis on character development and your plot could languish hopelessly in Ionesco-land minus the French avant-garde genius-factor.
If your characters are believable, if you’ve found their unique voices, the plot will naturally fit. Giving characters a “voice of their own” is what makes them real, and what will make your story flow, no matter how packed your plot is with extraordinary events.
Jane Austen’s plots are full of coincidences, twists of fate and, in spite of the lace, outrageous sexual perversion (seducers, sadists, and “appetites that are not what they should be” are all there if you look past the euphemisms). But she has been called the first veritable “realist” of English literature--because her characters act and speak in ways that people really act and speak. They even think in ways that real people think: selfishly, foolishly, rationally, and hysterically. Their words reflect their personalities. The best adaptions of Jane Austen, from Emma Thompson to Andrew Davies, rely heavily on Jane Austen’s own dialogues.
Okay, so few of us, if any, possess Jane Austen’s preternatural abilities. Or Cormac McCarthy’s or Anton Chekhov’s. Read, read, read, is always the first tip to any writer wishing to improve characterization. Meanwhile, here are a few tips specifically for playwriting:
1. Vocabulary. What words is a character likely to use? You may have a great SAT-worthy vocabulary, but does your action hero? Not all characters are going to use words like “preternaturally” or “avant-garde.” Keep those for your nerdiest, most professorial characters, or the writing bloghounds.
2. Phrasing. Characters, just like painters and their brushstrokes, have signature sentence structures. Powerful characters give orders, interrupt others and hold the floor longer. Meeker ones ask more questions and end them with question tags, like “This is the secret code, isn’t it?” The point is not to imitate natural speech, but to telegraph individuality.
3. Black out the names on your play and then see if you can fill in the names based on the lines (no cheating!). It should be obvious who says what. Or read all one character’s lines only to judge consistence and voice.
4. Character is destiny, but don’t be predictable. Give characters depth and allow them to grow. Introduce a stereotypically grumpy elderly man, for instance, but give him the sweetest line of the script.
5. Exercise your dialogue muscles by eavesdropping. Again, you’re not going to imitate natural speech (that would be way too boring), but you will begin to recognize patterns.
6. The last tip is that LESS is MORE. In order for your plot to move, Western Union (or think texting before Swype-typing) your characters’ speeches. Cut to the chase and move on.
However you write, plot-first or character-rich, or in that inexplicably inspired zone where they mesh, let the voices be heard!
Treanor Wooten Baring is currently a free-lance poet and playwright. She began her professional arts career as a television producer/director and script editor with public television in Mississippi and Massachusetts. Her latest play premiered in 2014 in Houston, Texas, and will soon be published by Theatrefolk, Inc.
Pen Woman Magazine Poetry Editor