Five Ways Directing Theater Taught me How to Write, Part Two: Charactery Stuff


Hey there, fleek foxes. Sorry if you already read all the words that come after this. I’m restructuring my last post to make it more digestible for future readers (because I’m still optimistic to think that there will be some). My last post was long as the day is, well, long. And this should really just be a five-part series. So, here it is again, the second part of my Musings of a Writerly Writer series! (Here was the first.) Without further ado…AHEM:

2. The ascending staircase of need, failure and fulfillment.

The only story that anyone has ever been interested in hearing is the Story of the Character who Needed The Thing.

Classic example: The Story of the Purple Fellow Who Needed to Hit Captain America with a Rolled Up Newspaper.

People love to talk about the difference between story and plot, and most of the time those discussions just wind up confusing me. Let me try to break it down in a way that makes sense to my theater brain:

“Story” is what happens when the characters act.

“Plot” refers to all the things that force the characters to react.

A good story is driven by characters. A good plot is the organic result of the character’s actions: the complications, the fallout, the resistance, the choppy waters the characters have to navigate in order to succeed. Plot should always be an afterthought.

A theater audience doesn’t really care about plot. It’s not why they came. They came because they wanted to see likable characters trying desperately to get things they need, and suffering, and failing and failing and failing some more – until, finally, they win (or don’t, if you’re one of those writers who’s also an asshole). This is why all modern acting techniques (all those names you’ve heard your pretentious scarf-wearing theater major friends babble on about, like Meisner or Adler or Kutcher), are based on the writings of a 19th century director named Konstantin Stanislavsky, who was the first person in history to articulate the importance of motivation. Good actors understand that no matter how naturalistic their performance, no matter how great their British accent, no matter how easily they can fire up the waterworks at a moment’s notice, if they don’t ground their performance in a dire and relatable NEED, they’ll be about as interesting a Japanese fox village where none of the people are actually foxes. And NEED really is the better term for it (partially because motivation sounds a little hackneyed at this point). Sometimes we’ll use fancier variations like Intention, or Objective, or Spine, but NEED is more urgent; it can’t be deflected or ignored or negotiated. Pro tip: The most fully defined and interesting characters have both a direct, literal objective (i.e., Hamlet’s objective is to avenge his dad, Mufasa) and a more abstract superobjective that ties directly into it (i.e. to figure out where I, Hamlet, fit in the great circle of life).

When people talk about narrative structure, all they’re really talking about is this: a character suddenly wants something that they didn’t want before, or they suddenly have an opportunity to get something they previously had no access to. They fight their way closer to it – and every time they get that much closer, and every time they fail harder…until they finally have a moment where they realize exactly how they can finally get what they need (what we call their Recognition Moment) and then they just freaking go for it. If your story feels like an ascending staircase of dire need and bitter failure, your climax is going to be the sweetest of payoffs.

People do a lot of fretting people do about the issue of AGENCY – and whether their characters have it. Pro tip: start the writing process by defining each character solely by their need. And if you’re already well into the revision process, and you haven’t asked these kinds of questions about your characters, give it a try…and then brace yourself for the inevitable cold sweats and head-slapping and the thousand more rounds of revision that will inevitably follow. Writing an entire series that follows a character’s arc over several long novel-length beats? This just got so much trickier for you!

Next time: Casting!

rolling raccoon

3 thoughts on “Five Ways Directing Theater Taught me How to Write, Part Two: Charactery Stuff

  1. Excellent post! Defining the character NEED is important, by far. However, after watching TV shows like Dexter and Hannibal, which have less relatable motivations (i.e.: they want to kill people), I wonder if I’ve been reading the characters wrong, because they are still relatable. Perhaps it’s because aside from the NEED to do X, Y, or Z (i.e.: Hamlet avenging his father), these characters always aim to self-preserve. Their veneers could crack at any moment and their lives are even threatened. Mortality is damn relatable.

    I agree that the more and longer you deny the character his or her success, the payoff will be sweeter. The challenge is to deny them in a clever way. Got any tips?


    1. Thanks!!

      I think self-preservation is always a part of everyone’s basic set of needs and that’s something everyone can relate to, but I would think in the case of Dexter and Hannibal it’s something more than that. I don’t watch either of those shows but doesn’t Dexter kill only bad people? So what he’s doing is taking a dark, terrible impulse he has and channeling it toward the social good. I think even if we aren’t murderous vigilantes, most of us can relate to some version of that conflict. With Hannibal…ugh, I don’t know, does he kill innocent people? That’s a little bit of a harder sell, but I know that a lot of vampire stories use vampirism as a metaphor for bestial human impulses and how important it is to try to control them or indulge in them only sparingly.

      I think your other question – how to deny your chararcters successes in a clever way – is a really important one. It’s maybe THE big question. It’s gotta be organic because readers/viewers are quick to detect the Writer’s Hand. So it can’t be random (perfectly timed earthquake!). I think it has to come from having really good, smart antagonists who have their own clear agendas/goals/needs. Perfect example right now if we’re talking TV shows: Justified. OMG Justified.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You raised a great point about the metaphor, because I think that’s exactly what Hannibal’s myth represents. He targets “rude” people, and cleverly gives other characters a breakdown of his personal philosophy in barely-disguised discussions about morality and power. It’s a very interesting TV show, and I recommend it if you’re looking for a great cast, ambience, and pacing.

        Yes, the denial has to be organic. Definitely no random events. One thing I noticed from film and television is the introduction of a seemingly innocent character who later turns out to be a primary antagonist, or the Big Bad. I wonder if getting these characters to show up at well-timed moments can make the reader think back and nod and say, “Hmm, I get how this denial of success could’ve happened, because of X, Y, and Z.”

        Oh! Justified. Based on that wonderful Leonard story. I will definitely check it out. Thanks for the reminder!


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