Friday, May 18, 2012

How many characters in search of an author?

Angela Gallagher, my wife, has earned herself a place on a Birmingham Rep theatre writing programme. I am beside myself with excitement: I get nervous when she goes to it, I watch the clock until she's back, I gobble up everything she can tell me about it. And at the moment, we're talkin' character.

We've always talked drama but somehow it feels richer at the moment because she's devoting all this time to pursuing her ideas while I'm over here in the corner pursuing mine. Feels all the more active. And we get into right debates.

Which is where character comes in. Or where character will. Character is the next subject in the Rep's programme and I will earwig everything I can from what Angela gets to discuss with them. But until then, we sit here, she and I, with a different volume of opinions. I have a lot to say about character. She could say a lot but she's waiting to talk about it at the Rep.

I really, really don't want to pummel my opinions away at her: I like it best when she disagrees and can change my mind. This is especially true right now because I am about to pontificate on a certain issue to do with characters and I know I am wrong.

I also know I am very serious and that I have benefited from this opinion. But it is wrong. Probably.


I have a friend who loves creating characters in her scripts. I've pointed out to her that if her lead character needs to know the time, she will for preference have him meet a blind dwarf watchmaker with 11 sons, 8 daughters and sure an' they'll all have a tale to tell. Whereas I'll give him a bloody watch.

Her way is perhaps more filmic. Certainly more imaginative. My way is very cost-conscious and practical. I think the right thing is probably somewhere in the middle. Don't be daft with characters but don't limit yourself either.

With her approach, I'd argue that the characters are so many that they must remain ciphers. But with my approach, you know every character is extremely important. If they appear to pop into a scene and vanish again, you know dollars to doughnuts that they're coming back later. I don't like this in me.

But let me tell you a Doctor Who story. There's a character in the last one I wrote, Wirrn Isle, called Dare. In the first draft, she was the best character you never saw. She was so vivid that you reached the end of the draft script and were certain that she'd been in it. Yet she hadn't.

Dare – a quick aside; the names in Wirrn Isle were all generational things, it was a whole socio-economic thing, I can bore you on demand - and where was I? Dare. Dare was a throwaway line, she was a character who ran something or other and had said this or that. I can't remember now but whatever it was, it began as an unimportant aside. And it just grew and grew in the not-telling.

Alan Barnes at Big Finish read this and pointed out that Dare was a little bit too interesting to not even feature in the drama. Between him and Dare herself, I was convinced. She boomed into the second draft and became not just important, but one of my favourites of my own characters.

Partly for this reason. There's a little exchange in Wirrn Isle and I liked it so much on hearing the final audio that I wondered whether I'd written it or if it had been an edit. I so wanted it to be mine that I wouldn't look up the script, just in case. But even if I can lie to myself, I can't lie to you. So just in order to give you the right credit, I have now read the draft script.

And the line is mine.

I love you.

It's just this: Dare's boss asks her how she can possibly be so stupid as to believe a particular thing and she replies:

DARE: I started with the evidence and worked backwards, sir.

Call me daft, but I like that line (of mine) and actor Helen Goldwyn delivered it just so. But here's a thing. I've never met Helen Goldwyn. I actually had no clue what she even looked like until right now, at this point in this sentence, when I broke off to go find a photo for us.

Now that I have, I also see that she has credits as long as you like, both for acting and writing. I'm not sure how I can be daunted after the fact, but I am.

The reason I didn't meet her, though, is because I was doing this thing that meant I could only get to one of the studio days for Wirrn Isle. As a writer, I don't have to think about who gets booked to do what role when: that's the producer and the director. I know David Richardson cast at least most of Wirrn Isle because I thanked him for it on my studio day: this whole set of actors were terrific and made me sound great.

Nonetheless, I've got a point lurking here somewhere and it is this. Even though I didn't have to think about whose scenes could be recorded on which day, I did have to think about how many people I used. How many characters in total.

Of course there's a budget issue: I don't know the figures for Wirrn Isle but no radio production can keep adding actors on a whim. But budget is just one of many practical concerns with characters: I only had two hours of story and I have to juggle so that everybody always had something to do. In radio, especially, if a character doesn't speak for a page or two, they are effectively gone. Vanished from the listeners' mind.

Which happens to fit my natural approach of writing as few characters as conceivably possible.

Characters are a right bugger to create. You come up with one and the next thing you know, you have to create another one just so the first has someone to talk to. Bastards.

If the Birmingham Rep gives Angela any insights into character, I will steal them for myself and never tell you. It's not personal.

It's in my character.

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