Taking Characters Seriously


Order 'The character I'm creating is coming from me, has been nourished in whatever I am. And I would assume -- I hope -- there's a plethora of them, thousands of them in there. And I want them to be as totally whoever they are -- as young men, or old men, or young girls, or whomever -- as they can be. But they've got to know that they came out of some female soil.'

-- Ntozake Shange

This section has been expanded and revised in the new paperback and e-book editions of Playwriting Seminars.

What's Modern about Modern Drama

The major shift in character development that marks most interesting plays since the turn of the 20th century is buried in the question, Where's the villain? In the kinds of new plays regional theatres do, you usually can't find a real villain to save your soul. But they are there – embedded in the central characters. Clichés are deadly in the theatre, but in this case there’s a lot of support for at least two of them to describe “modern” characters: “He’s his own worst enemy” and “She’s her own worst enemy.” That’s where the villain has gone.

The Internalized Villain

Technically, that’s what is modern about modern drama: The internalized villain. There are many other issues that mark modern drama, but from the perspective of playwriting, this is the most critical one. This kind of villain skulks within each character, or at least the central characters. That's Hedda, Stockman, Mrs. Alving and all the descendants from Henrik Ibsen’s great characters. At the transition to this new drama, sometimes even Ibsen couldn’t resist using a real villain in addition to a modern central character, so he added Dr. Rank as Hedda’s nemesis. Though in this case, Dr. Rank wouldn’t have been successful as a villain if Hedda hadn’t been her own worst enemy.

   In the good old days of the 19th century when things were simpler for playwrights, a play’s conflict nearly always hinged on a triangular relationship between three characters: The absolutely good Hero, the absolutely purely good Heroine, and the absolutely villainous Villain. Nobody had flaws. Nobody had doubts. And they all wore their subtexts on their sleeves. With internalized villains, the hero and heroine are gone, replaced by those ordinary people who are their own worst enemies. This is partly what led David Mamet to say that good drama is “a depiction of a human interaction in which both antagonists are, arguably, in the right.”

   The internalized villain is what makes contemporary characters “complex.” The complexity comes from these warring – or at least competing – traits within the central character. The current excitement about Scandinavian detective fiction is partly driven by the complexity of the detectives these crime writers have developed: Their internal demons (villains) often come close to preventing them from solving the cases they are investigating.

Impact on Endings

The internalization of the villain has a key impact on the endings of contemporary plays. The “Good” no longer have guarantees of living happily ever after while the “Bad” are no longer guaranteed to suffer as the curtain comes down. Or as Tom Stoppard said, “The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily.” These changes mean that audiences often leave the theatre thinking in deep ways about what they’ve seen, thoughts often prompted by the play’s theme. But traditional villains haven't vanished. Like vampires and werewolves, they never die – they've just moved around the block to film and television. Most contemporary playwrights don't miss them.

   It doesn't matter if you're writing the gloomiest tragedy or the wackiest off-the-wall farce. Take your characters so seriously that part of you goes into each of them. Drop any character you can't do this with. If you can't take your characters seriously, you'll end up making fun of them or creating little more than stick figures (this holds for comedies as well as serious plays). When that happens, subtext vanishes and the forward movement of the play feels like molasses on a cold day – and half the audience starts thinking about how much they're paying the babysitter.

Complex Characters & Internal Conflict

Taking characters seriously is also the only way to insure that you're developing complex characters, the kind contemporary plays thrive on. There’s a key question to ask about central characters: What are the conflicting drives inside each of them?

   Central characters without internal conflicts won’t do well in contemporary plays. These traits do not need to be balanced and in equal competition. In fact, unbalanced and competing traits are often more effective. Eddie in A View from the Bridge wants desperately to protect his young niece from the dangers of the real world but he also – mostly unconsciously – is driven by an inappropriate love for her. Those competing traits (his love for her being the dominant one) lead to his doom. In a similar way, Steve in Farragut North mostly embraces the sleaziness of political campaign management, but a small part of him would still like to be a decent human being. That decency is a very small part of him – but it’s enough of a trait to lead to his own professional doom.

Meaning in Character Names

The old days of Lydia Languish and Tom Trueheart wandering through plays are long gone when playwrights thought they always had to hang a character's subtext around their necks with a name. But despite the passage of centuries, remnants of this tradition persist in the contemporary theatre. That doesn’t mean that all character names needs to be fraught with meaning today, at least based on how audiences may perceive them.

   One of the most visible results of banishing villains to Hollywood is the approach of contemporary playwrights to character names where being subtle is the watchword. But enlightened as we like to think we are, character names still do carry meanings, even today – at least they do for many playwrights, even if you can't count on audiences always sharing those implications. Stereotypes in names still have power, even subtle ones coming only from the sounds of the names.

   Think of renaming the central character of one of those action movies “Wendell” instead of the classic, “James Bond.” As a fine demonstration of how odd this meaning in names subject is, Ian Fleming lifted the name of his famous spy from the American author of a field guide to birds, wanting, “the simplest, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find.”

   Arthur Miller called his central character, the failing salesman, “Willy Loman” for a reason instead of a name like “Creed Lancer” and there aren’t many spies or masked avengers called Elmer or Gladys in Hollywood films for the same reason, unless they’re in comedies. On the surface, it makes no sense that Wendell couldn’t be as effective as James in the secret agent business. If anyone ever did a study of the first names of CIA and MI5 agents, they would most likely find the same frequency of names inside those agencies as in the general population, but that tends not to be the case in film or theatre.

   If in the good old days, playwrights painted a sign on characters with their names by drawing on a dominant trait, that's a bit obvious for the contemporary theatre. But occasionally, obvious is good as in what Tennessee Williams did with character names in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof:

BRICK For the favorite son.

GOOPER For the “wimpy” un-favored son.

MARGARET (also called Maggie) For the strong sister-in-law married to Brick.

MAE For the weaker sister-in-law married to Gooper.

Note the sound of these names when spoken aloud: The strong (or seemingly strong) characters have hard and clipped sounds in their names while the weak characters are given soft and sliding sounds. The villain in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is Dr. Rank with that hard “R” and even harsher “k” while Hedda’s husband, the ineffectual Tesman, is given one of those sliding names. It’s interesting that this naming tendency seems to cross language borders.

Contemporary Character Names

August Wilson said what many playwrights experience in developing characters and their names: “Someone says something to someone else, and they talk, and at some point I say, Well, who is this? and I give him a name. But I have no idea what the storyline of the play is.In most cases for contemporary playwrights, characters begin to form first and then their names come.

   Most playwrights don't use the full name for designating a character in the dialogue pages of the script. Instead, they select either the first or last name either as a matter of habit or based on the one that seems to say more about the character. (Using only one name in the script also means fewer keys to pound as you write.)

Names from Well Known Playwrights

The selections these playwrights made for character name designations in the scripts are in all capitals.

1. From Charles Fuller: Richard DAVENPORT, Vernon C. WATERS, Tony SMALLS.

2. From David Henry Hwang: Rene GALLIMARD, MARC, Comrade CHIN, HELGA.

3. From Wendy Wasserstein: HEIDI Holland, PETER Patrone, SUSAN Johnston, SCOOP Rosenbaum.

4. From Tony Kushner: BELIZE, LOUIS Ironson, PRIOR Walter, ETHEL ROSENBERG.

5. From August Wilson: SETH Holly, ZONIA Loomis, Rutherford SELIG, BYNUM Walker.

6. From David Mamet: Shelly LEVENE, Dave MOSS, Richard ROMA, James LINGK.

7. From Lisa Loomer: VICTORIA, FORGIVENESS From Heaven, WANDA, OLIVER.

When Tracy Letts uses the title plus the last name SHERIFF GILBEAU, it’s a way to quickly define for us a character we see only briefly (to make this naming business murkier, the Sheriff is called “Deon” in dialogue). If a character is given one of those double first names popular in some parts of the country like Sara Jean or John David, that’s typically what is used throughout the script. There are no rules or even common practices here other than to say it’s unusual for a contemporary playwright to use more than a single name in the script and when they do, there’s usually some significance (at least to them) for doing it.

   Names help bring characters into focus, but what drives them and fascinates audiences is conflict. That’s what makes them seem real.


What's Modern in Modern Drama

Point of View


Language, Foul And Otherwise

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