Demoting Your Central Character

As part of the launch of our new membership scheme, we’re celebrating writers that LPW has worked with in the course of the past year.

In the first of our blogs by our playwrights from the Dark Horse FestivalEva Edo recounts how she realised one of her play’s protagonists wasn’t so important after all – and that exploring a more unexpected story opened up exciting possibilities in her play.

I started writing because I wanted to tell a specific story which was close to my heart: about how the state swoops in to remove children from their homes, which in the long term may not be for the greater good. It felt natural to write about what I knew; about my former working life as a lawyer immersed (if not drowning, at times) in the world of child protection.

I wanted to write about what I had seen, heard and experienced. I just needed to tap into myself. It was like looking into a mirror: my research started with me and my memory. No emails to strangers trying to enlist their help so I could gain their expertise. No feelings of being a fraud and touching on areas I was ill-qualified to comment on. It was going to be easy. Like rocking up to the family court and speaking up for my clients. A walk in the park!

The first draft was written in a few weeks and feedback sought. Story great. Tick. Themes explored well. Tick. Well structured. Tick. Dialogue sharp and witty. Tick. A central character lacked depth. Oh. How was that possible? The character was someone I knew inside and out. A strong person whose presence in my working life had left a mark and was central to this story.

I set about remedying the problem. I pored over the character’s backstory. Re-wrote her short biography. Extended her long biography. I gave her emotional milestones after emotional milestone across her 40-year life which would have driven a real person to insanity. I submitted the play for further scrutiny to be told that the character lacked purpose. So, I focused on her objectives, making them stronger – and now bordering on blatant. The next round of feedback again focused on that character. This time asking if she was necessary to the story at all.

I was completely taken aback. In the real world, outside of the play, this character had a central role. She had been like a mentor to me in my life as a lawyer. Teaching me how to tread water in what sometimes felt like working in a sea of other people’s woes. To me, her presence in the play had never been questioned. I couldn’t write the story without her being in it – right?

Once I allowed myself to ask that question, though, things changed.   I took another look at the story. Asked myself what it could be without this character. I saw where the story might go if she simply disappeared. I tried to let go of my preconceived notion of the play being true to my experiences; that the story needed to mirror them. I had to let fiction be fiction.

At first, this made me feel uncomfortable. It made me question the integrity of the story. I was contemplating departing from what I knew, had seen and experienced.

After a couple more drafts, the play was finished. In the end the character stayed, but instead played a much less significant role. I had demoted her; moved her to the back of the character line. Instead, she informed the play but did not carry it along, which in turn allowed the other characters to become stronger and shine. This revealed that the story I had written was really about the world of a child, rather than her lawyer.

I continue to write from experience and tend to create characters who have traits within my knowledge. I feel privileged to be in the position to draw on my personal experiences and tell these stories. The reality, however, is that although my experiences may enrich my writing and hopefully bring a unique quality to it, in the end a play will only be as good as the story you can tell – which may not be the same as the story you have lived or seen through the eyes of the people that you know.

Eva Edo’s play ‘Looked After Children’ which was part of the 2016 Dark Horse Festival will receive a rehearsed reading in PlayWROUGHT#5 at The Arcola this Saturday 29 July 2017 at 8.30pm. For further information and booking:

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