Developing Real Characters

Whether for the page, screen or stage, each writer has their own approach to creating characters. At the April Auckland Writer’s Room, two of our most esteemed writers, novelist Lloyd Jones and playwright/television writer Roger Hall, spoke candidly with playwright/screenwriter/director Stephen Sinclair about their techniques for developing those memorable characters that stay with us, long after the book has been read or the play has been seen.

Stephen asked Lloyd to begin with the beginning. How does he go about creating characters?

“My books start with an investigation of an area of interest ,” said Lloyd. “I don’t think in terms of character but rather in terms of voice. I’m more interested in the interior landscape and language that identifies us as individuals, and the mental furnishings of a character, rather than how they look or what they wear. Eventually a voice takes over which is approximately my own – but not my own – and the character evolves. I’m often amazed at how ‘knowing’ my characters are. I constructed them but they often know more than I do!”

Lloyd explained it can take the writing of thousands of words before ‘the voice’ is discovered, a process potentially fraught with anxiety but one he is well used to. “You’ll see a phrase in amongst it, a piece of language that can open up another world  – and that’s your quarry. Language is underpinned by a type of musicality and is particular to a person. Sometimes a phrase can unlock the story that is waiting to be told.”

Roger admitted he could almost be called an “equal opportunity playwright”  because he has created  79 male and 73 female characters for the stage  alone during the course of his writing career. His process for kick-starting  character differed to Lloyd’s. “I start with something like ‘woman 40’. The characters begin like stick figures. I live with them and build them up. As Lloyd does with prose, for me it’s dialogue, more and more of it and it’s never wasted time. I live with the characters for several weeks until I can say, “Yes, I’ve got it!”  I don’t have to describe how people look,  nor do I have a vocabulary for clothing, just ‘woman 40’ and it’s up to the director and actor to do their parts. That’s a big advantage for a playwright.”

When asked if they had ever developed characters that just did not work, Roger replied, “Possibly in Middle Age Spread. I did some wife-swapping in an early draft and that worked better. Sometimes I’ll be watching a play or TV series and think, “Why am I not enjoying this?”  and I realise it’s because I don’t care about the characters. It’s essential to write characters that the audience wants to know about. They don’t have to like them but they do need to care about them. It has to be a real onstage page-turner so it’s worth taking a lot of time and trouble to work on characters.”

In a play, characters are given to us, we watch them onstage, but it is different with prose. “It’s not whether the character is interesting or not,” said Lloyd, “but rather the persuasiveness of the language, how the story is delivered rather than what is delivered. When novels are turned into films people can sometimes be disappointed because the character they see onscreen is not quite the same as the one they had constructed for themselves. And what is a character anyway? It’s a body of nerves, tensions, responses and emotions, revealed in reaction to incidents and interactions with others.”

Roger said theatre does not require the writing of lengthy character profiles and admits this requirement for film and television scriptwriting has always been challenging for him. “Worst for me is that they want to know the storyline too soon. I don’t know the storyline until I’ve finished the whole play. Most of my TV series have been based on my stage plays so I have a running start, I already know the characters.”

When it comes to gathering good fodder and inspiration for character creation, Roger said there is often great material right in front of you. “Be absolutely shameless about exploiting all your friends and yourself in particular. YOU are a wonderful source of entertainment, stupidity, and treachery so make full use of yourself!”

Lloyd agreed there was much to be said for using yourself as a resource. “Some people ask ‘how do you get into the head of a 14 year old girl from Bougainville?’ and I reply, well I know what it is to be scared or excited. It’s not difficult. You can step into anyone’s skin. You cannot ring fence the imagination. As a writer you should be absolutely fearless, take no prisoners,  and you shouldn’t be writing if you can’t be honest.”

… and don’t hesitate to go out and do some field work too.  ” I’ve written four plays with all female casts,” said Roger, “and women have come up to me and asked, ‘How do you know them so well?’ and I reply, ‘I like women and I like to listen to them.’ Listening is very important. There was a time at the height of the women’s movement when men were accused of not being able to get into women’s voices – but it’s our job. We are writers and the same goes for women. They write about men brilliantly! I’m a huge fan of Kate Atkinson. She’s fantastic. If you are a writer, you can get into the voices of anyone, male or female.”

As preparation for his play  Social Climbers, Roger spent time with two groups of secondary school teachers. Over bottles of wine, he listened to what they had to say about the everyday  ups and downs of their profession. “This is another aspect of building up character. Meet people and listen to them.  Go out and seek information. People like to talk about themselves. Make it clear what you want, promise you won’t exploit them and that they won’t be recognised.”

Plays have a defined structure and Roger advised aspiring playwrights to watch lots of plays and become familiar with the nuts and bolts of theatre. “Go to plays,” said Roger, “get involved with an amateur group and work backstage. Plays have a structure whereas a novelist can go back and forth through time and place with a change of paragraph. It’s much harder to mess around with time in a play. Generally a play starts at A and finishes at Z.”

Lloyd said having to begin with a structure would contain him and Stephen said he envied the freedom of the prose writer. “I can spend months working out the optimum relationship between narrative, character and the central idea in a film script. Starting with just an idea to see where that takes you must be wonderful!”

Both Roger and Lloyd have had works adapted to other mediums and Stephen asked what that experience was like for them.

“Terrific!” said Roger. “I was given chance to write the script for Middle Age Spread but I didn’t, so missed out on having that  screen credit. However, Keith Aberdeen did it very well. I had to be realistic. Some stuff was left out but I was very happy.”

Lloyd’s Book of Fame  went from prose to the stage. “Carl Nixon did a great job on a small ensemble piece. It’s always a shock though because prose writers don’t often hear words presented back in this way. Your work has taken a different life on the stage than on the page and there is always a wee ‘jarring moment’ for me. I know most of the people in Mr. Pip and to see them in this other guise delivering my words … there’s this moment of awkwardness for me which everyone else watching wouldn’t see … but it’s all OK by the end of film.”

Part of the process from pen/paper to audience usually involves review and constructive criticism from others. “In general, publishing is based on mutual respect,” said Lloyd. “I would always invite close questioning of my work, whatever improves the text I’m all for it and there’s no sense in being egotistical about it.”

Roger recounted a writing experience in  1992 when he undertook a contract to write in the UK for British television. I was working on two TV series, one of which got made, and the other didn’t.  “It was a difficult experience, almost  a nightmare,  but turned out to be one of the best years of my life. I’d write one thing, they’d want another…  I’d change it, then they’d prefer the one before … and on and on. I was put through the wringer but they knew what they were doing. Meeting after meeting, they put such rigorous intensity on every script. That’s  one reason why British TV scripts are so good.”

When asked why he creates characters, Lloyd replied, “For the most obvious reason. They are the vehicle for the story. Without them there is no story. The most important strand for a prose writer is time and who manages time and the events. The clock stops when you write stories but our lives carry on in their messy way. There are constraints but there is no structure and this heavily engineered thing called a story needs people, ‘marionettes’, to drive it along.  Self expression is about making something and it’s pleasurable, whether you’re a carpenter or a potter. I happen to make words. It’s about a level of interaction with the world. As a writer you live intensively. You’re questioning, mining, all the time.”

During question time, Roger was asked if he uses dialogue as an exercise to explore character or is all dialogue written destined for the play itself?

“I hope it will appear in the play but sometimes it doesn’t. My advice would be to write down whatever appeals – and it could be anywhere in the play. Don’t be inhibited. Just write and eventually you’ll have enough stuff for the first draft. It may seem daunting for new writers but think of it as a safety net. You don’t have to get it right the first time: get it written, don’t get it right. Have fun, steam ahead, get it down then you have something to work from. Writing begets writing.”

When asked if he found working with actors helpful, Roger asked if there were any actors in the room … and then went on to say that he disliked workshops for many years.  There was a time when everyone assumed every play HAD to be workshopped, that problems in the writing would be solved in the workshop.”I do believe that when you hand in a play, you should think, ‘This can go on tomorrow.’ The workshops should be in your head, as best you can, and then the work handed over to an experienced director and actors.”   But in recent years, ATC have devoted two to three days to a couple of my news scripts, and I have found this process helpful.

And what about false starts?  “My laptop is full of them,” Lloyd admitted. “Patience is required because it can go on for months. It must be very instructive to hear actors reciting lines and I think this also applies to prose writers. Read your work aloud. If it doesn’t sound right, then it isn’t. American novelist Richard Ford always reads his work into a Dictaphone and plays it back before he sends it out into the world. Reading aloud is remarkably effective. There’s a  sound to language that you cannot get unless it is read aloud.”

Stephen quoted Flaubert who said, Writing is a dog’s life but the only one worth living and both writers agreed that it is an occupation they still get excited about.

“I have to say though that I’ve written my last play!” Roger announced. “It’s the fifth last play I’ve written! I’m thinking I can’t do any more and right now there’s nothing itching to go, the muse has deserted me. If I never write anything else, I feel I can hang up my boots. It’s hard work – but then so many things are – and if it’s no fun, then don’t bother.”

Written by Jane Bissell for Script to Screen



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