Creating Memorable Characters

by Jonathan Dorf

{NOTE: Jonathan Dorf is one of our featured master writing teachers during OJAI SUMMER WRITERS WORKSHOPS. Monday – Friday, June 18-22, he’ll teach the  weeklong workshop “Playwriting Jumpstart.” Click here to view the full week (5 days) of events and excursions. Click here to view our full schedule of workshops June 1-30, 2012.}

When most of us see a production of a play, what we remember is not the lighting or the twists and turns of the plot. We remember the characters. And every actor is likewise looking for a role that will get him remembered.  So as a playwright, the best thing you can do for yourself is to write memorable characters. Writing these memorable characters is, of course, to quote the cliché, easier said than done. My hope here, however, is to give you a trio of tips that may help you burn your characters into the brains of the audience and draw actors to your work.

One of the biggest problems with the characters we create is that they are often one-dimensional. Particularly because of the influence of film, we create a character who wants one thing, and it completely defines her. For example, in my play Shining Sea, the original Violet character wanted to marry a man named Candy, and her only function in the play seemed to be to drive toward this wedding she imagined.  She didn’t work. At that point, noted playwright and dramaturg Leon Katz suggested I explore a technique called “the tension of opposites.” What does it mean?  Quite simply, as a playwright, you give a character who is defined too simply (i.e. Violet) another powerful drive that competes with the original one. For Violet, this new drive is a nearly fanatical desire to keep the space around her clean. As a woman living in a squat on the street, keeping that space clean presents quite a challenge, and Violet’s need to be clean competes for her attention against the need for the wedding. She has become one of her own obstacles, and that makes her more interesting to the audience and to the actor playing her.

Another way to make a character pop out is to give him a distinctive way of speaking. No, you can’t give everyone a stutter, but you can give each character his own vocabulary, depending on where he’s from, his level of education and the characters to whom he is speaking at any given moment (e.g. we tend to speak differently when we’re in conversation with our boss than we would with one of our high school buddies). One particular trick is to give your character a special phrase that is his own. Hugo, for example, in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, had the refrain, “The days grow hot, O Babylon.”

But this special phrase can actually be more than a mere trick or technique. It can help you flesh out the character. Why does the character choose those words? Where do they come from? Did her mother or father say them too? Did they come from some other part of his life experience? What does it say about her education or where she’s from? Keep asking yourself questions as you work backward to let your chosen phrase inform the character. And remember that there’s an unwritten rule that has evolved in the theatre called the “rule of three”:  for something to be remembered, it needs to appear three times. While it’s hardly an ironclad rule, with a character’s special phrase, it pays not to be too stingy.

The third and final tip is not just about writing for the audience, but it’s also about writing for actors: give each character a moment. What does that mean? Every actor wants to feel that his character contributes to the play and, to be honest, being forced to rehearse night after night to pick up a suitcase or recite obvious exposition isn’t going to excite many actors about being in your play—nor is it likely to inspire a professional theatre company to pay for an extra actor’s services. So when you create a role, ask yourself two questions: one, does this character fulfill a function in the play (e.g. two daughters, both of whom seem only in the play to doubt their father’s intentions) that another character is already doing?  If the answer is yes, then either you need to cut the duplicate character or give her some other reason for existing. Two, does this character have some defining or memorable moment?  If the answer is yes, great.  If not, how can you give her one, whether it’s through something she says or something she does, that gives us just a little glimpse inside her? Your characters are the footholds that the actors and the audience need to climb into your play, so get digging and see what you can carve out!


Ojai Summer Writers Workshops: June 1-30, 2012  

{View Entire Schedule Here}

“For writers worldwide, we want the month of June to become synonymous with writing in Ojai,” says Sequoia Hamilton, founder of Ojai Writers Conference and Ojai Summer Writers Workshops. “Last year, writers traveled as far away as Europe, Asia, South America, and Canada proving what many locals and visitors already know—that Ojai has international appeal and is a writer’s dream destination.”

“June in Ojai will be 30 days of cultural decadence,” adds Hamilton, “We’ll offer professional writing workshops and an eclectic mix of literary events such as Open Mic Poetry Jams, Well Red – a robust ‘Writers & Wine’ pairing, and a ‘Book Tea’ benefiting the Ojai Library featuring renowned authors and lecturers. Writers can also enjoy The Music Festival, The Wine Festival, The Lavender Festival and other vibrant community events. There’s no other place on earth I’d rather be in June than in my own hometown of Ojai.”