Theatre Thursday: It takes character

As the 2020-21 season has become “The Years without Theatre,” it’s still important to remember that the show must — and will — go on. While neither I nor any of my friends are currently performing live, we’ve found ways to do it virtually, usually via Zoom.

For the last eighteen months, I’ve been doing improv every Monday night remotely with the ComedySportz L.A. Rec League. We just don’t have any audience besides ourselves. But despite not having live venues at the moment, it doesn’t mean we’re not creating.

A question I get a lot as a writer is, “Where do your characters come from, anyway?” The answer varies, depending on what format I’m working in.

For stage plays, I usually, but not always, base them on real events, so I have at least those historical figures to start with, and can find plenty of material on their temperament, etc. Of course, every good historical fiction requires its fictional characters, and these I will generally discover in figuring out how to tell the story of the main character.

For example, I have a play about the famous mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, who was assassinated by a Christian mob in 415 C.E. In that play, I have four historical characters: Hypatia; Isidorus, her husband; Nestorius, a former student (and rumored lover); and Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria.

Since the play deals with themes of rationality vs. religion, history vs. myth, and loyalty vs. belief, the made-up characters I created were a current student of Hypatia’s as an echo of Nestorius, and her two servants, young women who represent another opposing faction in the discussion, one Jewish and the other Christian.

As for how I developed those characters, when I write my plays I prefer to do them in workshops with a regular group of readers, so I start with a direction and voice for the character, write the first draft before I start reading it in short chunks, and then let the interpretation of the actor I’ve cast help guide rounding out and refining that character.

The play of mine that’s about to go up, Screamin’ Muskrat Love!, is not based on historical figures and really isn’t based on real people, but the germ of the play did come from my real life  Basically, as he was getting up in years — and after having been a widower for longer than he’d been married, my father met a young woman in a grocery store who seemed to take an interest in him.

And when I say young, basically she was in her late 20s and he was well past Medicare time. Can you say, “Taking advantage of?” My wicked half-sister and I teamed up to push her out of Dad’s life, but in the process I learned about the very common scam where young women con artists (always working with their families) will look for older men shopping alone in grocery stores, usually during the day, then arrange to bump into them and show lots of attention.

The ultimate goal is to hook up, move in, marry up, and then inherit everything out from under the actual family. I totally get why a man my dad’s age would fall for it, though. At least to a point.

Anyway, only the idea of a young woman seducing an older man with the ultimate goal of cheating his kids out of his house made it into the play. I put a lot of twists and turns into it, also made it my tribute to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and then turned it into a door-slammer of a French farce.

As my director likes to remind me, “Do you know what the most expensive part of a set is? A functional door. I counted. You know how many doors you wrote into this? Eight! You wrote eight damn doors!”

(Okay, he wasn’t really pissed, he was taking it as more of a directing challenge, but it was yet another educational moment for me as a playwright.)

At least every single one of the eight gets good use. And, like my other plays, I developed each of the characters based upon the actor(s) who regularly read them in the weekly developmental sessions.

Screenplays are a little trickier if only because they are a lot harder to develop in “read it out loud” workshops, and that’s because, unlike plays, the action parts take a lot of precedence, and there’s nothing more boring than listening to someone read paragraphs of action split up by sparse dialogue.

Sometimes, I’ll do a developmental reading version of a screenplay, which means that I’ll make a copy of the file, and then cut down all of those actions to their bare essentials, putting the emphasis on the dialogue, but it’s a lot of extra work that can actually completely change the feeling of the entire thing.

On the other hand, editing down action to get all the points across in minimal space is never a bad thing, and can actually make the script tighter overall.

But because I don’t develop screenplays with a real cast regularly reading them, I resort to different techniques, which are also the ones I use for short stories and prose.

These basically involve a combination of modelling and mental improvisation. By modelling, I’m not talking about strutting down a runway. Rather, I’m talking about finding some real-world example or person to base some aspect of the character on, and then going from there.

It really depends on emphasis. Do I need a really strong visual for this character, or is it more personality and behavior? Or is it a little bit of both? I do find though that for works with a lot of characters that it’s most helpful to base parts of them on people I know IRL or images I find online, but these are only the most superficial parts.

I like to create a visual reference, which is simply a document with each of the characters’ names and a picture of what I think they look like. That’s because I’m a very visually oriented person. Your mileage may vary, but the idea would be the same. Find whatever evokes your creativity and cements a personality in your head, and then come up with exemplars for that.

The names you give your characters can also help as well, and I am never above going for the symbolic, although I will try to hide those in really, really obscure ways. The novel I’ve been excerpting in the Saturday Morning Post, by the way, has 38 named and significant characters.

Some of the minor ones were shorthanded to remind me of which friends I’d tossed into the mix. Meanwhile, the major ones are Easter eggs to be found — crack the code, predict the story. But, interestingly enough, while the minor characters might be real people dropped in as cameos, the major ones never are.

Why? Because I’m not writing about people I know. I’m writing stuff inspired by bits and pieces of the human condition. So I might borrow one friend’s face just to give me a visual or emotional anchor, but then graft on another friend’s personality, toss in a few traits of my own, leaven with some funny real-life story I heard somewhere, blend judiciously, and then turn to the improv.

See, long before I started doing improv as a performer, apparently I was doing it as a writer. I just didn’t know it. My technique since forever has always been this: Plan nothing ahead, just start with the idea, toss a couple of characters into the scene, and let them do their thing. You give them the particulars of location and relationship. They do the rest.

But, just like with improv as performed, there has to be a character before there can be anything else, which is why all of these little writerly inspirations and visualizations. I guess for me personally, the mantra is “If I can see it, I can be it.”

Well, at least on the page. The funny thing I’ve discovered in doing improv, as opposed to improvising characters in my head, is that as a performer I am actually very physical and visceral. I can find a character very quickly if I change my voice or take on a posture.

Visualizing won’t do it for me on stage. But if I start to speak in a particular cadence or tone or accent, or stand a certain way, it’s like I’m suddenly possessed and the character takes over.

When it comes to writing, the secret is attitude, as in the character’s point of view. The real focus, though, is on what the character wants. That was the number one thing that my playwriting Jedi master Jerry Fey imposed upon me.

Every character has a need. That need is the most important thing in the world to them, whether it’s making coffee this morning or winning the race for Prime Minister. Giving each character a strong need and never letting them deviate from wanting it creates stakes, and this creates drama (or comedy) and compels your audience.

That much is true in all creative writing in whatever format, and definitely in improv. If a character doesn’t need something, we don’t care.

And, by the way, in comedy, the stakes are actually much higher than in drama. Why? Because in drama, the stakes are realistic: Detective Margaret Davis wants to solve this case even though the DA is against her. Doctor Johnson has to cure her patient of an unknown disease. Gerald wants to save his marriage from his wife’s drinking problem, but her family is no help.

In comedy, the stakes are even higher because they are ridiculously trivial: Sheila would kill to win the baking contest, but so would her opponent; Arnold goes to great lengths to cover things up after he lies about his height and age to a prospective Tinder date, but his best friend gets wind of both and is interested in her as well; in order to not get fired for excessive tardiness, Arnold goes to extreme measures to gaslight his boss and bribe his coworkers, but one of them won’t be bribed…

One of the masters of turning the trivial into high comedy is Rowan Atkinson, especially in his persona of Mr.Bean. He can turn something as simple as moving a tea cup into the most elaborate of farces simply because the character is thwarted in his attempts — and the more he tries and fails, the more vitally important completing that simple action becomes.

So the TL;DR of the piece is this: Writers and improvisers create their characters out of whole cloth, with no real basis in reality, but we will sprinkle a combination of people we know and like, people we know and don’t like, people who are famous, pictures we find online, and humans we see wandering around, toss it into the food processor in our heads, and come out with a people salad that isn’t one bit you, although it might be a bunch of bits of you and other people we both know.

So I guess the real answer to the question, “Where do you get your characters from?” Is: I just pull them out of my ass.

Hey — since that’s literally true of a few of them over the years, I’d call it a fair answer.

Image by Skeeze  from Pixabay.

Sunday nibble #27: Finding inspiration

A lot of the time, people ask me where I find inspiration for my stories and characters, particularly when I’m writing total fiction. It can come from various places.

For example, for the first novel I serialized here, I document in that post exactly what it was that led me to come up with the idea for the first short story. It was basically some stranger I saw in a slow, late-night line at the drug store near where I live, buying nothing but two 24-packs of TP (long before COVID-19), and it took off from there. I do think I’m going to name the whole thing Taking Hope, though, after the novella that ties all of the short stories together.

Now, I had finished that entire thing before I posted any of it here. Not so with the current serialization, The Rêves (working title), which I’m a bit ahead on, but it’s not finished yet. So that’s more of an experiment, and as I mention in the intro, it really started as three separate threads that I then wove together before following the various branches of the story.

The original germ of the idea came from working in a nearly century-old theater that had originally been a vaudeville house, and then a cinema, before going back to a live theater with two (well, technically three) stages.

Now, when they were kids, both Debbie Reynolds and Marilyn Monroe used to come to see movies there and while Monroe died long before the place made its reconversion in the late 1990s, Reynolds not only performed there, but attended many events, and donated a lot to the place.

Hence, it has the Debbie Reynolds Mainstage and the much smaller Marilyn Monroe forum.

And the staff for the mainstage always insisted the place was haunted — but not by either of them. No, these ghosts were apparently the original theater accountant, Robert, who appeared dressed just like an Arrow Shirt man from the 1920s, and an unidentified woman.

Keep in mind that I don’t believe in ghosts, although several of the staff swore they had seen them, and that patrons had also reported seeing them, describing them independently but in exactly the same way.

I think they may have exaggerated a bit. But there was something about that cavernous main theater late at night with only the aptly named ghost light on stage that could easily cause chills. And believe me, I tried to get the ghosts to show themselves, but they never did.

But the combination of this classic Art Deco building, Reynolds and Monroe being attached to it, and the creepy elegance of the dark cavern at night made me think, “What if Hollywood and environs are just full of the spirits of all those dead stars who can’t get any rest because people are still making a fuss about them above ground?”

Monroe. Bogart. Bacall. Jimmy Stewart, Jimmy Cagney, Bette Davis, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers — all of them are kept alive in a way, as can be seen at any tourist trap in Hollywood, as well as the many murals around the city.

This was also right about the time the film Coco came out, and of course it was all about dead ancestors being able to return to Earth for one night during the Día de muertos celebrations, but with one catch: It only worked if at least one of the living descendants remembered them.

Now, that idea isn’t unique to the movie. It’s a part of various cultures, and the contrast struck me: We have these dead famous people who are and will be remembered by tens of thousands of people forever, but what about the ones who weren’t famous?

Take those parts, mix them together with my love of the L.A. subway system, and boom, the major premise was born. I mean, wouldn’t an underground train tunnel be the ideal way for these spirits to travel around unseen, considering that many of them are underground or close to it in the first place?

So I started out by writing that lore having no idea what I was going to do with it. The Metro bailed me out on that one, too.

I was coming home from downtown. I don’t remember exactly when, but I was waiting at the Grand Park Station for the train back to North Hollywood when these two guys came down to the platform. They were both probably in their mid-30s, and they were in full-on steampunk regalia, complete with top hats, long coats, goggles, gloves, the works.

I figured that they must have been coming back from some event, which wouldn’t be unusual in downtown L.A., but they fascinated me, both because their outfits were so amazing and clearly created with great attention to detail, but also because they were obviously a couple, although very subtle about it.

I tried to remember whether I’d ever met any gay steampunks, and I couldn’t think of any off of the top of my head. But these two anonymous cosplayers gave me an a-ha moment. Ghosts need hunters, and if this pair didn’t look like they should be hunting ghosts in the subways, who did, right?

They also reminded me a lot of Miguel and Tulio from the animated film The Road to El Dorado, both in looks and personality.

So Joshua and Simon were born, and in the opening of The Rêves I pretty much describe those two exactly as I saw them. It’s a thing that actors and improvisers do, too — spot random people on the street with interesting traits, and borrow them for character work.

I’ll also let you in on a little secret: If you know any writers, they’re using you for material, too. Now, I don’t know how other writers do it, but I usually mix and match. That is, I might pick one friend as a visual reference mainly because it’s a way to anchor a character in my head, and it may be as simple as they match the demographics of the character I’m writing — age, gender, race, etc.

But the personality will come from a completely different place. Sometimes, I’ll borrow it from somebody else. Other times, I’ll make it all up. The nice part about this “Cuisinart composition,” though, is it keeps people from figuring out that I did base a character on them.

They might think, “Hey, that character looks like me,” but then the personality is totally different. Or vice versa. And I can always combine traits of two different people and personality quirks of two or more.

So in this one, for example, Preston is completely made up out of whole cloth. In my mind, he doesn’t look like anyone I know, and he doesn’t act like anyone I know personally. Anabel, on the other hand, is definitely based visually on someone I know but, again, with an utterly created personality. The same is true with Brenda.

The celebs who pop in are, of course, based on real people, but with a catch, which the story will explain and I won’t reveal here, and a passing character known as Holden is most definitely a version of someone I know in real life who is actually still very much alive.

And in case any of my friends are wondering, no. My villains are never based on real people that I know and like. I cast them from imagination, or from real-life villains everyone knows, like particularly toxic politicians and businesspeople.

So, that’s the answer to the question. And, of course, these choices of person and personality are just the starting point. Basically, they’re two little pins that I stick in the page before I tell my characters, “Okay, talk to me.”

I like to think that I’m not really writing the story myself, other than the fun bits in narration, but rather that I’m transcribing what my characters are thinking and feeling moment-to-moment. That keeps the journey very interesting for me because I never know what these little fuckers are going to decide to do, and I have to keep up.

I hope, dear readers, that this approach keeps your interest, too!

%d bloggers like this: