Where Do Characters Come From?

July 22, 2017

Tina Howe has been quoted as saying that her characters are splinters of herself. Is this true for you and your characters? Where do your characters come from? Eight YouthPLAYS authors respond: 


Kit Goldstein Grant: I often write adaptations, in which case some of the characters come to me pre-made. Of course, whether you're basing a musical on a short folk tale or even a full-length novel, not all of the characters are fully developed in the prior form, and I often end up changing or fleshing out characters or inventing additional ones. I don't go through it to analyze, but I'm sure all the characters I write have something of me in them, even the ones I don't invent. Or maybe they don't. Who knows?


Nancy Brewka-Clark: Yes, my own history is part of anything I write, or perhaps I should say, my own perception of what's happened to me to make me the writer I am. But the most fun comes from trying to write from scratch, knowing nothing about a character and seeing him develop traits that seem foreign to my own. Characters do spring forth from some font that can be tapped by believing it exists.


Steven Stack: I think that within all people, there are elements of every type of character that has ever been written or thought of, from hero to villain and everything in between. All of my characters begin with some characteristic of me, no matter how small. From there, they begin to take on a life of their own based on their own essential nature as characters, their similarity to real people that I’ve known, watched, or read about, and the world that they now inhabit.


Nina Mansfield: Yes. I think all of my characters have a little bit of me in them. Sometimes it’s the good parts (I hope) and sometimes it’s those parts of me that I don’t really like and I try to hide away.


Barbara Lindsay: I suppose one could say that every character any sort of writer creates is a part of the writer, even somewhat in biographical writing, because the writer’s eyes and ears and experience are the filter every fact or imagining goes through. Some characters just start talking to me, with no interference. Some take longer to find. Some of my characters are quite recognizably me, and some of them I have to listen for very, very carefully, to hear their unique voices and see from their perspectives. I recently wrote a play about Medea, the sorceress infamous for killing her own children. It really took a lot of very quiet, probing, thoughtful hours to be able to write that killing scene without judgment. It was a challenge to get fully inside the skin of a woman who could do something like that. But the more I got to know her through the rest of the play, the more I came to understand how she got to that moment, what it felt like for her, and how she paid for it afterward. A lot of my characters come to me after I’ve asked the question “What kind of person would do this or that?”


Adam Goldberg: Well, every character exists between my brain and my keyboard. There is nothing that ends up on the page that’s not conceived of; there are few characters you could look at and say, okay, this person doesn’t talk like Adam at all, has never sounded like Adam, would never have a similar thought to Adam. Our characters, by-and-large, exist in the great unconscious, are archetypes and remixes of things we’ve seen before. One day you’ll be mixing two colors of paint, and find out you have a lovely new shade; the fireworks lecturer who sinks the cruise ship; the devil-pact lawyer who’s also a spy and a lousy sister; the Hollywood aviator constantly calling in favors from his fan club.

You can make a character deeper by giving them to opposing things, by putting in near opposition who they are and what they want. Don’t put them directly opposed: you’ll get a repressed nun, a criminal who wants to quit, a village girl dreaming of a broader life. Instead, cut at the angle: a farmer who, despite liking tradition, wants to adopt the latest technology; a criminal trying to get a replacement; a village girl trying to join a snobbish nunnery.

And make them good in their job. People put themselves into characters, and people want to root for talented people.


Tom Smith: I am usually inspired by a person who is struggling with their identity. I am fascinated with the idea of both how we can re-define ourselves and the reasons why we would ever want to. I usually write my characters with the voices of people in my life in mind—not actors, but friends, family. I find I can be more specific that way and there's more variety. I write a lot of female-centric plays and a lot of plays with at least two generations of age because I feel we are like our parents but often rebel against that. I don't think I've ever written myself into a play because I don't find myself inherently that interesting but I do act out each part to make sure there's something for each and every actor.


Brian Armstrong: I would say that mostly this is true for me. They come out of my head so they have to reflect something within myself, but they are also a commentary on what I observe. Sometimes they are about people I've met, but usually they are a personification of an idea or way of being that I see in this or any culture.

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