Last Wednesday, a number of Ayr Writers’ Club members, after braving the truly ‘orrible weather, found themselves trapped in difficult situations in the Mercure Hotel. Well … not really, but their characters were.
Helena Sheridan is a club member, well known for her success in play and sketch writing. In her workshop we looked at how, to quote Helena, ‘situations often change the principles, attitudes, or long held beliefs of a character … and can alter the dynamics of the plot.’
First we needed to create characters that were rounded and believable. Helena suggested we base our character on someone we know. Obviously, as you don’t want to be sued, or lose all your pals, it’s best to disguise them a bit – change the sex or other potentially identifying features. Your character might be pushy and boastful, or quiet and unassuming; daring or timid; workaholic or downright lazy; talkative; nervy; arrogant; nosey; reclusive etc. – you name it. We need to know a little about them – age, marital status; job; ambition. Perhaps they have a guilty secret or some hidden shortcomings. (Cue for concentrated scribbling.)
Soon we had:
A musician whose chances of success are hampered by idleness and a drink/drug problem.
A retired army officer, who still expects everyone to jump to it, whenever he barks an order.
An inoffensive 70 year-old lady who turns into a termagant if pushed too far.
A persistently nosey character.
A sneering and arrogant young man.
A mean and controlling person.
A quiet, but capable Scandinavian girl.
A man of mystery.
(Sorry if I’ve left anyone out)
Helena pointed out that, by placing two mismatched personalities in a potentially stressful situation, you can create tension and drama. She gave as an example the play/film The Odd Couple, where an uptight, clean and tidy man has to share a flat with a slovenly flat-mate. How can their friendship survive this?
So, to round two:
We were asked to become our character. Helena then paired each of us with another writer, combining two characters who would be likely to rub each other up the wrong way. We then had a set of situations to chose from:
A persistent salesperson
Trapped in a cable car
A bundle of money
A lost ticket
An argument over boundaries
The task was to create a dramatic dialogue. Cue for more scribbling, this time accompanied by a lot of muttered discussion, arm waving and a necessary break for refreshment.
It’s amazing what you can come up with in what seemed like a very short time. These brief dramas, acted out, illustrated Helena’s point admirably. Well rounded and distinctive characters, with both strengths and failings, can show themselves in a different light, depending on the situation. The pairing of wildly different characters heightens the drama.
We had the martinet driven to distraction by his unwanted guest, the dissolute musician; the mild-mannered septuagenarian confronting a supercilious young man over a boundary dispute; the mean and controlling type reduced to a quivering jelly when stuck in a cable car with a quiet and capable girl, who saves the day; and the enigmatic hitchhiker grilled by the nosey-parker.
There was a short time for discussion at the end, the main theme being the question of potential opportunities for would-be playwrights. Obviously club and S.A.W. competitions were mentioned, also ‘Page to Stage’ at The Writers’ Summer School at Swanwick in Derbyshire, local am-dram groups or community youth theatre and the B.B.Cs Writers’ Room.
Many thanks go to Helena for a fun and informative workshop. Also, thank you to all the club members who gamely took part. This year’s club competition for drama is over now, but that gives us plenty of time to produce something for next year!