We’ve all sat in groups or meetings, or even down the pub, with a fixed-on smile while we quietly wonder why we bothered showing up. (Be honest, it’s not just me.) You have nothing useful to say on the subject, or no-one listens to you – either way, it’s a waste of your precious time because you are serving no purpose. Well, for a writer, the same is true of the characters you create. For every role – big or small – someone has to be auditioned and contracted; they have to grow into their part, learn and rehearse your script, then perform and get paid. It’s a considerable effort because this is skilled work – and the success of your script relies on that actor playing their character well. So it’s vital to make every character count. This is easily overlooked when, as you stare at the fridge for inspiration, on to your page sneaks a secondary character without a motivation.
As a drama writer, I need to consider what (all) my characters are trying to achieve within the overall piece and within every scene or sequence. If the characters don’t know why they’re there, the scene will die on its feet. Luckily that rarely happens because (a) the frustrated actor will fix you in the eye, and demand: ‘What’s my motivation?’ or (b) they’ll invent one to fit. They understand that, to pull off a scene effectively, they need a purpose, and the stronger the better. Which of the millions of ‘intentions’ we humans constantly harbour, are they about to pursue? Once they know their goal, they can quickly work out if they are persuading, rejecting, shaming, bolstering or whatever, on their journey to achieve it. Don’t be fooled, a good actor is never ‘inactive’ in a scene, even while silent, because portraying a character is an active job. Pretending is hard work.
As writers, we must not forget this. Our characters may be born in our heads, then emerge into the script – but an actor’s character exists in the physical world, it is an living presence – whether that’s on a theatre stage, a film/TV set, a radio studio, or whatever. I’m no performer but I know a lot of very good ones, and they cannot do their work without knowing why they are there. An actor views the play from their character’s point of view: they are not in it simply for the protagonist to look fabulous, they are there on their own terms. So if an actor is desperate for a cause, they’ll invent whatever they feel best suits their character – and who can blame them? But as the creator, it can be disappointing to see your work unbalanced by a motivation you hadn’t planned for.
That’s why a character with no purpose quickly becomes surplus to requirements: don’t be surprised when the script editor/director/producer strikes a line through their name with a cheery: “Do we really need the mother /teacher/drunk?” They are thinking about the actor’s fee, the possible extra takes, the added complications of an unnecessary character. Quite rightly, they want to put the purposeless character out of its misery.
So be kind to your characters, be kind to your actors, and most of all be kind to your own work. Tell everyone why they are here. Then the magic will happen. Liz John