The choices a character makes in her past combined with the people he has met have a direct impact on the person that we meet at the beginning of your play. You’ve probably given significant thought to the protagonist, antagonist, and supporting characters who will appear in your work, but have you thought much about the people in your character’s past? An along those lines, can you name the defining moments and critical life choices that have left their mark on your character?
For the purposes of the exercise we are going to do, let’s imagine that we are writing a play about an imaginary protagonist named Hobart. When we meet Hobart at the beginning of the play at age 24, we discover that he is single and has no interest in dating.
List 10 defining moments that span your character’s childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.
Defining moments are the ones that leave a permanent imprint on our lives; they are those moments that, for better, encourage us to take risks and build our confidence, and for worse, traumatize us or keep us living in the past. Let’s say that at the tender age of 8, Hobart goes to summer camp and meets a girl (Franny) whom he really likes. When camp is over, Hobart is excited to find out that Franny lives two blocks away! It turns out, though, that Franny only wants to hang out with her girlfriends and forgets all about Hobart. Of course, these moments could include the time Hobart went to math camp and won a mathlete competition, or the time he got punished by his mom for back-talking, or how his grandfather gave him his first tool set and Hobart discovered how much he loved to build things. Try to give your character a good mix of accomplishments and disappointments.
List 7 critical choices that influenced the direction that your character’s life took.
Critical choices are the “do or die” moments. The consequences of those choices determine whether you will be at peace with your life or whether you will have regrets. These can range from standing up to a bully, not telling someone how you feel, or selecting your career. What might not seem to be important choices at the time (e.g. not driving someone home from a party) might turn out to have huge consequences (friend gets in a car with a drunk driver and is killed in an accident.). Often, the result of a critical choice is a defining moment for a character.
Let’s go back to Hobart. Let’s say that Hobart, at age 16, has had a secret crush on a girl (Molly) since he was in third grade. After a long, sleepless night, he makes the decision that he will ask her out on a date the next day at school. He passes her a note in math class. She reads it, and starts to laugh. She shows it to her friend Betty, who also starts to laugh. Molly looks right at Hobart and says, “Eeww. No way, loser.” (Can you see where this is going?)
The critical choice here (Hobart gathers up his courage and chooses to ask out Molly) has very serious implications for Hobart. So much so that Molly’s rejection even becomes a defining moment in poor Hobart’s life. In this example, the critical choice (asking a girl out) is linked to a defining moment (getting rejected). But when developing your character, the two needn’t always be linked.
List 5 pivotal people from your character’s life.
First off, this list may or may not contain people who will show up as characters in your play. They should, however, have had a profound impact on shaping your character’s life. In my own life, I am a musician due to the influence of my high school orchestra director. I have also come to enjoy comic book movies and Lord of the Rings because of how much my husband loves them.
So who are these “pivotal people?” They are the first person your character ever loved. Bullies. Teachers. The family member who introduced you to a hobby that you enjoy. Best friends. Enemies. Role models, athletes, activists, you name it.
Let’s imagine that Hobart only has a few friends. Edgar, his best friend since he was 8, is a very pessimistic guy and when he gives Hobart advice, he always points out what could go wrong. It also doesn’t help that Hobart tends to be more of an introvert. Clearly, Edgar is a influential person in Hobart’s life, so imagine how the conversation between Hobart and Edgar went when Molly turned Hobart down (at age 16), and the implications it could have for Hobart if he were to ever think about asking another girl out.
If you decide to apply this exercise to one of your characters, do it with the intention of getting the information you need to know in order to develop a character arc that pushes him out of his comfort zone. In a well-crafted plot, characters need to come up against obstacles that force them to grow and change if they want to succeed and move ahead. If the moments, choices, and people in Hobart’s background have set him up to avoid women, then you will have a better handle on what roadblocks and complications he will need to overcome if he’s going to change by the end of the play.