Tradecraft: Why Are You Here?

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I recently sat down with the director of a play I’m working on to let him grill me with questions about the show. His questions covered everything from staging to music, but in the end it all boiled down to asking one primary question of my characters, “Why are you here?”

Now this idea isn’t something I’m a stranger to. Any time I write fiction I have to wrestle with the question of what each particular character contributes to the whole of the story. But writing for the stage has clarified the importance of those questions in a way that writing a novel rarely has. Here’s why: In a novel, the writer has a great deal of leeway to explore characters and to use them for flavor or window dressing or comic relief. But in stage writing, every character has to be played by an actual actor—an actor who is being paid—and that means the writer has to be absolutely sure of each character’s necessity, otherwise I’m wasting the actor’s time, the audience’s time, and the production’s budget.

So the director went down the list.

“Why is Henry in the play?”

“What’s Henry’s goal?”

“Who is Henry’s antagonist?”

“What causes him to change?”

“Why can’t his character be combined with this other one?”

And then on to Nettie, and General Cox, and Mary Alice, and all the others.

We did this for every single part in the play, large or small. For a lot of characters, there were easy answers. But for some, I found myself squirming as I tried to articulate exactly why they were there and what they were accomplishing. At one point, the director asked me to show him a single line of dialogue in which a certain character gave voice to his reason for existence. Whoa. That’ll put you on the spot, especially if you are doing your best to keep that kind of heavy-lifting in the subtext.

A good story will be lean enough that it labors if a single character is removed.

Pete Peterson

But here’s the thing, I couldn’t get out of answering the question. There was no room to wiggle. The director has to take my writing and understand it inside and out in order to interpret and represent it well and to communicate to the actors exactly who they are playing and why. Every actor on the stage needs to understand why he or she is there, what their character is trying to accomplish, and why they make the decisions they do. If the writer doesn’t know, how can the actor, and if the actor doesn’t know, how can the audience?

It was an uncomfortable meeting at times, troubling even. But I’ll tell you what, it sent me back to my writing desk with a rare clarity of vision. It had become obvious that some characters were too weak, had too little conflict, or too little consequence. And the director told me something in that meeting that I’ll keep with me every time I write from here on out. He said that every actor needs a reason to be excited about his or her part. That means every character needs to have his or her chance to shine, to matter, to take center stage and move the audience, to mean something.

I’ve known all this intuitively, but writing for the stage has focused my mind on its importance. These issues get worked out in the writing of a novel, but in that medium they get worked out primarily in my own mind and there’s wiggle room to fudge and gloss things over. Maybe that’s because I’ve been sloppier than I ought. Because while stage writing and novel writing are two very different forms, most of the same principles apply. And one of those is that the writer needs to have a clear vision of the purpose, motivation, and goal of every single character in his cast. A good story will be lean enough that it labors if a single character is removed. The writer needs to be able to answer well when a reader points to a minor character and asks “Why are you here?” A good writer will have a good answer—and his character will be better for it.

If you’re a writer, I challenge you to try this and see if it doesn’t make you uncomfortable. Give your work to someone else to read, and then have them ask you about your characters. Force yourself to explain to someone each character’s purpose within the story—out loud. Why is this character necessary? How does this character affect the resolution of the narrative? Can this same purpose be fulfilled by another character? Is this character only here because you like him or her? Does this character have a moment in which he or she alone bears the dramatic weight of the narrative? Is this character a part that an actor could get excited about? How does this character serve the story?

I guarantee that trying to explain yourself out loud like this will make you squirm—especially if your inquisitor is bold enough to really take you to task. And I guarantee it’ll illuminate some weaknesses in your work.

But it’s worth it.

It’ll inform and clarify the final creation and allow your audience to submit themselves more easily to the willing suspension of disbelief. And isn’t that what serves the story? Sometimes it’s not about what we want, sometimes it’s about what the story wants, what the characters want. It’s our job to listen.

We’re storytellers. We serve the story. That’s why we’re here.

 

 

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he’s the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


6 Comments

  1. Matt Garner

    @mattgarner

    Great stuff, Pete! The collaborative nature of theater can be a minefield for some writers, but you have such a healthy perspective. I’m sure it’s a treat for them to work with you.

  2. Lisa Smith

    Thank you, Pete. This is excellent advice, albeit a bit scary. I know that as more of a “pantser” type writer (ok, who am I kidding, an outline makes me break out in hives), I tend to add characters more or less by instinct or as the plot needs them, which may or may not translate into my being able to answer the questions you posed satisfactorily. It’s easy to indulge oneself and throw in a peg-legged pirate just because you’ve always wanted to write a scene with a peg-legged pirate (“Aye, avast, me hearties!! Arrgghhh….!”) but it’s good to be reminded that to make a piece of fiction really work, that pirate has to serve the story somehow or you might have to make him walk the proverbial plank.

  3. David Mitchel

    @dmitchel

    Excellent, Pete.

    A few years ago I had a bit of an uncomfortable epiphany along these lines while I was reading the following passage in Tolkien’s (justly beloved) essay On Fairy Stories:

    In human art Fantasy is a thing best left to words. . . . It is a misfortune that Drama, an art fundamentally distinct from Literature should so commonly be considered together with it, or as a branch of it. . . . Drama is naturally hostile to Fantasy.  Fantasy, even of the simplest kind, hardly ever succeeds in Drama . . . Fantastic forms are not to be counterfeited.  Men dressed up as talking animals may achieve buffoonery or mimicry, but they do not achieve Fantasy. . . .

    Specifically as to Fantasy being an art quite distinct from Drama, I largely agreed. But what Tolkien said next — calling Drama fundamentally different from narrative art — was a bridge too far:

    For this precise reason – that the characters, and even the scenes, are in Drama not imagined but actually beheld – Drama is, even though it uses a similar material (words, verse, plot), an art fundamentally different from narrative art.  Thus, if you prefer Drama to Literature (as many literary critics plainly do), or form your critical theories primarily from dramatic critics, or even from Drama, you are apt to misunderstand pure story-making, and to constrain it to the limitations of stage-plays. You are, for instance, likely to prefer characters, even the basest and dullest, to things.

    Well, certainly. But in story-making, isn’t the preference for characters over things warranted? And if so, are the “constraints” imposed by the stage an impediment to story-making, or a kind of freeing constraint to an author — like a track is to a train?

    One related consideration for novel-writers: the dialogue of many novels could be improved by the exercise of imagining actors delivering it on stage. One example: I love Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Wonderful characters, good plotting, magnificent eucatastrophic payoffs at the end. But the dialogue is terrible. I know because I appeared in a stage version of it, and the stageplay we used incorporated much of Austen’s original dialogue verbatim (bad, bad choice by the stage writer). Every time I heard or delivered a cringe-worthy line, I realized the extent to which Sense and Sensibility‘s other virtues as a novel had made me overlook this weakness. The stage exposed it repeatedly.

  4. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    @chrisyokel, I’d love to give you my thoughts, but I’d probably better read it first 🙂

    @dmitchel, I’m with you, and not with Tolkien, on characters vs. things thing. I also disagree with him on the fantasy/drama thing. It’s certainly easy for it to go wrong on stage, but that’s why it’s such magic when it goes right. See Wicked for just one example.

    And I agree that when writing dialogue, it’s essential to say it out loud. If it doesn’t roll off the tongue, it’s wrong.

  5. Grace

    @grace

    Wow, I’d never thought about this. Writing poetry, I’m always concerned that every word serve a purpose, but I’d never made the transition of that discipline across to characters. Thanks for writing up your insights, Pete, this is so thought-provoking!

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