By Pia Wilson, member of the 2008 Emerging Writers Group
My grandmother was sitting on one of the hard wood pews at little Canaan Baptist Church in Fayette, Alabama. The church secretary was reading the sick list, asking the congregation to lift up prayers for health on behalf of each member mentioned. As the secretary rattled off one name – Bob Hughes – my grandmother felt the flush of embarrassment in her cheeks. She couldn’t imagine who would put this man on the list. Bob Hughes was not a member of Canaan Baptist Church. More importantly, Bob wasn’t a real person: he was a character on a soap opera.
That’s the power of character.
As a playwright, my aim is always to write incredible characters that carry on in people’s consciousness. I believe vivid, 3-dimensional characters bring a play to life and give us better insight into humanity. They are at the center of great plays – any impactful art, really – and the artist’s number one task is figuring out just how to create powerful, lasting characters.
I like to ask myself a series of questions about a character, like “Where is the character right now?” or “What is the character’s favorite childhood memory?” And once I answer those questions, I ask deeper questions, based on what I discovered. Let’s say the character’s favorite food is pork rinds, the next question I’d ask is “Why is the character’s favorite food pork rinds?” Maybe the answer is that the character’s grandfather would let her teethe on hard cracklings when she was little, and the hard pork rinds she gets from the bodega around the corner from her apartment in Williamsburg are the closest approximations she can find to the homemade, salty treats she had when she was knee-high to a bullfrog.
The reason for all the questions is simple in my mind: to create complexity. Memorable characters are hardly ever simple people. If Hamlet was just a good, ole boy, never meaning no harm, I doubt his namesake play would be so popular hundreds of years after its creation. Every time we see HAMLET, we have the opportunity to see a new aspect to the Prince’s character.
Great characters are relatable too. Not many of us can be the Prince of Denmark but all of us know what it’s like to grieve a loved one. Finally, great characters are clear in goal. Hamlet wants to avenge his father’s murder. He hems and haws about what action to take, but he knows what he wants.
Did I say finally? Because there are other things that contribute to the creation of a standout character. Great characters also have:
One of my favorite quotes from Blanche Dubois is, “Oh look, we have created enchantment.” That’s how I like to feel when I’ve typed “End of Play,” after a long journey with the characters I’ve listened to, argued with, loved, and maybe even hated for weeks on end.
Then there’s that secret dream of having a character of mine inspire a call to prayer.
Pia Wilson is a member of the 2008 Emerging Writers Group. She does like pork rinds but does not live anywhere near Brooklyn. Her short play, TURNING THE GLASS AROUND, is a finalist for the 2011 Heideman Award. www.piawilson.com
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.