This is the second in a series of four articles discussing techniques for developing a new play inspired by a character. The first installment covered the development of a character biography.

PREVIOUSLY I WROTE about an exercise to help you develop a detailed biography for the protagonist in your new play. If your starting point is a particular character, as it often is for me, then developing that detailed biography is an essential first step toward working out the story and, ultimately, structure of the play.

In completing the 99 questions, you should have come to a discovery about your character’s dilemma — that driving need that will propel the action of your story. You will have learned a good deal about your character’s history, and you should have some sense of their current situation. All of these details will enrich your play as it begins to take shape.

The next step, for me, is to give my character a voice using what I’ve discovered. This is another way to better know the character. I do this in several ways. One is to write a monologue in the character’s voice; another is to write the dialogue for an exploratory scene around some event in the life of the character.

If you approach these exercises as improvisations on paper — meaning you turn off any internal editor and go with what comes — then you might make some interesting discoveries. The first thing you could learn is how this character uses language: whether they are formal or casual in speech, whether their origins are reflected in their vocal patterns, whether their social status influences how they speak, and so forth. You could also find out how they go about trying to get what they want. Is this person forthright and earnest? Is the character bullying or conciliatory? Is the character bold or shy? Depending on whether you have a good ear for spoken language, these traits can reveal themselves quickly through the dialogue you put on paper.

The key to the usefulness of either exercise is to make sure your choices are active. Give your character an objective to pursue.

Is your character bold and assertive like Peter and the Starcatcher's Molly? Or guarded and fearful like Peter? An exploratory monologue can help you find their voices.
Is your character bold and assertive like Peter and the Starcatcher’s Molly? Or guarded and fearful like Peter? An exploratory monologue can help you find their voice. Photo from Edina High School’s 2016 ITF production by Susan Doremus.

THE EXPLORATORY MONOLOGUE

Let’s start with the monologue. Once you’ve completed the 99 questions, it’s often useful to dive immediately into a monologue in which the character attempts to persuade someone in their world to assist them with a pressing need, a need you’ve identified in the character’s biography. By making the monologue a plea for help, you automatically bake action into it.

Action is essential. It is through action that we come to understand our characters. Implied in all of this, of course, is an obstacle, often in the form of another character’s resistance.

I find that a good opening line for the monologue is “Listen to me, I …” or “Can’t you see that …” and go from there. But you can kick off the monologue any way you like as long as you have a clear objective in mind. Know what your character wants before you start to write, then make them work for it.

Set a timer for about 15 minutes and see what comes. I guarantee you will know a lot more about your character when you are finished than when you started.

THE EXPLORATORY SCENE

The exploratory scene presents similar opportunities for discovery. As with the monologue, it’s critical to give your character a strong objective. At this point, you might not have a clear sense of where your play begins or ends, but you should know a few key events in the character’s life, and you can use one of them as the basis for the scene.

By way of example, in my play Salvation Road, a boy named Cliff has a sister, Denise, who gets involved in a religious cult. When I started, that was about all I knew about the story. I also knew that Denise’s involvement with the group would become so contentious that she would cut off her family and disappear. And I knew that Cliff eventually would hit the road in search of her. In working through Cliff’s biography, I began to make some discoveries (you can also call them decisions) about his religious background: I realized he was an atheist, while Denise was a practicing Catholic before she joined the cult.

What kind of conflict did that cause? That question propelled me to write an exploratory scene in which Denise attempts to guilt Cliff into supporting a fundraiser she’s organizing for earthquake victims, while Cliff cynically resists, making fun of her Catholicism. In writing the scene, I realized Cliff sometimes liked to adopt an attitude of cool detachment to needle his much more earnest sister. Underneath, he was far less certain of himself. Once she disappears, he becomes confused and frightened by what happened to Denise.

Strong objectives or conflicts can be discovered through an exploratory scene. Photo from Bishop Gorman High School's 2015 ITF production of Lost in Yonkers by Susan Doremus.
Strong objectives or conflicts can be discovered through an exploratory scene. Photo from Bishop Gorman High School’s 2015 ITF production of Lost in Yonkers by Susan Doremus.

These discoveries were revelatory because it soon became clear that the play was not Denise’s story; it was Cliff’s. And his journey was a movement from cynicism to despair to an acceptance of the possibility of the Divine. As he undergoes the tests that prepare him for the ultimate confrontation with his sister, he stumbles toward a more mature understanding of her need for a life grounded in religious faith and how unscrupulous people can exploit that need.

As it happens, a version of that exploratory scene now appears in the published script, in a much different form than I originally wrote.

The exploratory scene won’t always stay in the play. Often you will realize that once you have a better sense of the story. But sometimes the exploratory scene presents a moment or event so compelling you realize that you can’t let it go. It has to be part of the play.

Where that event should fall in the structure of the story is something you need to work out, and I will address that in the next installment.

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