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THE PLAY’S THE THING: Part 1 by By Dale Griffiths Stamos

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THE PLAY’S THE THING
Part 1: Prewriting
Getting to Know Your Characters

By Dale Griffiths Stamos
January 2010

Authorlink welcomes award-winning playwright Dale Griffiths Stamos as a regular monthly columnist.

". . .there are three aspects of your character’s life . . . "
—STAMOS

During the prewriting phase, Character Bios and Character Monologues are useful tools for fleshing out your characters and giving them dimensionality. Many books on playwriting and writing in general have templates for character biographies. Two books I mentioned in my last column: The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri and The Playwright’s Process by Buzz McLaughlin have excellent templates.

Here is a thumbnail of these templates. Keep in mind, there are three aspects of your character’s life you will want to examine: the physical, the sociological and the psychological:

PHYSICAL: Describe what your character looks like: Are they tall/short, thin/fat, color of hair and eyes, salient facial features, hairstyle, any physical scars or handicaps, style of dress and comportment (graceful, clumsy) etc. SOCIOLOGICAL: Describe your character’s social life: married/unmarried, parents & siblings, any children, other important relatives, their education, job status, religious affiliation, clubs, sex life, romantic life, etc. PSYCHOLOGICAL: Describe your character’s psychological traits: are they shy/outgoing, honest/dishonest, neurotic, open, garrulous, annoying, nerdy, obsessive, bookish, a computer whiz, etc. What are their interests and passions? What is their basic philosophy of life? Attitude toward the opposite sex? How do they behave when all alone? When in the company of others? (Is it different?) Every character has some kind of flaw, what is theirs?

". . .you may realize that you don’t necessarily know too many of these details about your character. That’s all right . . ."
—STAMOS

As you go through this process, you may realize that you don’t necessarily know too many of these details about your character. That’s all right. Think of these bios as a means to establish them now. It may feel, in a way, almost arbitrary, as if you’re just making things up as you go along. But if you let your pen guide you, you will find that your character takes fuller and fuller shape in front of you. And remember, you are still in the prewriting phase, so that means all of this is essentially exploratory, a means to an end. You can change any aspect of the bios as you go forward. This is just to give you your jumping off place, a solid base from which your character can grow and evolve.

The use of Character Monologues can serve to get you even more deeply into character. In this case, you free associate a number of important moments in your characters life, using the first person. (Example: The day I broke my arm. The day my father walked out…). In The Playwright’s Process, the author calls these “milestones.” You then take 5-7 of them and write one page monologues (again in the character’s first person voice) describing each incident in full, with all its emotional and dramatic content.

How much you will use these monologues in your play does not matter. Parts of some of them will likely crop up in your play at key moments. But the important thing is how much these monologues allow you inside your character.

As effective as these two techniques can be, in the same way that description, no matter how detailed, can never really capture the essence of someone in your life, so your characters, in the end, will transcend these biographical details and start to live and breathe in your mind in more ineffable ways. The importance of Character Bios and Character Monologues is that they allow you a way in to that deeper character essence, and they give you, in addition, a rich set of details you can tap into as needed when writing your play.

About the Author Dale Griffiths Stamos is an award-winning playwright whose work has been produced and published in the United States and abroad.  She has been on the faculty of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and will be teaching a “Finding Your Story” workshop at Cal Arts in the fall.  For more information, go to www.dalegriffithsstamos.com