by Catherine “Cappy” Rush
My nineteen-year-old self is sitting cross-legged on a black Masonite floor with a dozen or so classmates spaced out in a circle. With notebooks and pens, awaiting instructions, we make the ideal picture of an earnest band of budding actors. The teacher instructs us to write a list of four people we know well, ending with our own name as the fifth. She gives us ten minutes to write three words we think best describe the five names. Four come easily enough, but the fifth, ourselves, takes some real thought. For every descriptor we write come doubts. (Cheerful? Most of the time, but definitely not in the morning. Honest? Yes, but can I really say that when I regularly lie to my parents about how hard I am studying?)
After our ten minutes, we discuss our experience and it becomes clear we all have this problem. The closest answer we can come up with to define ourselves is: it depends on the situation. The revelation that we all judged others while allowing ourselves flexibility began a lifelong fascination for me on how our inner life determines our outer relationships and the actions we take. Our desire to and relative ease at judging and categorizing others and our inability to do it for ourselves, applies not only to the fractured world we are currently living in but also to our writing. And it’s just one tool available to us in creating complex and fascinating characters. The examination of how the inner beliefs, fears, and judgments of our characters can act as impetus for action and ultimately lead to deeper and more memorable characters is what I’d like to touch on here.
The deeper we understand our characters the more authentic they appear to the reader or performer. In playwriting we call this making your script “actor-proof,” meaning the characters are so well-written they can’t be misinterpreted. To some extent character biographies are helpful in giving us a general map of events and circumstances specific to a character, but as I learned in that 1980s acting class, it won’t necessarily give us a fully three-dimensional character. This can be especially true when writing our antagonists or characters we personally don’t like. Sometimes defining for ourselves how they judge other characters can teach us more about them and what makes them tick.
Another aspect of character creation, and humanity as well, are beliefs and how they determine behavior. Some beliefs are longstanding ones we were taught as children, while others might be adopted through our own learning experiences as we have matured. An example of a belief that we learned, hopefully from our elders and not from experience, is, “If you place your hand on a hot burner it will hurt.” But others can be fallacies we acquired and accepted, never re-examining them as adults. These unconscious beliefs can determine how we move in our world. There can be layers and layers of beliefs about one single issue. Consider the complex set of beliefs that lie beneath racism. While we may fervently believe we are all for racial equity we might also concurrently hold unexamined beliefs that defeat that ideal. The belief that Black men are prone to criminality is one perpetuated by the American news media and the historical prevalence of Black men as antagonists in stories, plays, movies, novels, serial media, etc.
So, what do our characters believe? Knowing what core beliefs our characters operate under can provide fascinating insights and sometime lead to conflicting behaviors that contribute to a character’s dimensionality. The fun thing about beliefs is that they can live in opposition to other beliefs within one character and as a result render an almost absurd sense of irony. The staunch anti-abortion activist who believes in the death penalty (Human life is sacred and murderers should be executed); a priest who takes a vow of celibacy engaging in sex with others (I honor my vows and I am an instrument of God’s love); the Senator on the Ethics Committee who sexually harasses his employees (No one should abuse the system and women like being told they look hot). These are not the only beliefs characters might have for their behavior. The priest might just as possibly believe that the “flesh is weak and the Devil is strong,” and that belief might bring about a different manifestation of the same behavior. Creating beliefs can bring nuance in our writing of characters and more authenticity than if we just created their behaviors with no understanding of why they engaged in them in the first place.
Digging even deeper into the psyche we come to fears. Fears and beliefs go hand in hand. Sally’s afraid that if she forgives her uncle for abandoning her father in her dad’s time of need it will be evidence she doesn’t truly love her father. Alan is afraid of the dark because he believes there is something he can’t see that will hurt him. But he also believes that a real man doesn’t have fears, so he makes himself walk through his house in the pitch black every evening. Defining which fears rule our characters can add understanding for us about how they operate in the wider world we’ve created.
Judgments, fears, and beliefs are just three of the many tools that make up the craft of character creation. As another acting teacher of mine, John Stix, once said, “Craft is for when inspiration fails us.” Some characters are born fully formed, but others characters might remain stubborn fragments or ones who feel too one-dimensional. Approaching them from the inside out can help to tease out the tangles with those troublesome personalities. There’s an added perk to all this talk of inner life: we can use this exploration in our own lives by questioning judgments, fears, and beliefs that dictate our actions and feelings. I suspect the more adept we become in identifying these inside aspects in our own lives the more expert we’ll become in fashioning complex, complicated, and memorable characters on the page, perhaps becoming better people and better writers at the same time.
Suggested reading: In Claire Fuller’s latest novel, Unsettled Ground, the protagonist, Jeanie, is a fantastic illustration of how beliefs, judgments, and fears can create memorable characters. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireFuller2 and check out her website at ClairFuller.co.uk.
Cappy Rush teaches playwriting at the School of Creative and Professional Writing at Spalding University. Her play The Loudest Man on Earth won an Edgerton New American Play Award and was named one of the top-ten plays of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle. Other plays have been produced in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Martha’s Vineyard, winning contests from London to California and loads of places in between. Visit her website at www.CatherineRush.com