Developing Strong Characters through Script Analysis and Writing

Developing Strong Characters through Script Analysis and Writing

Bringing Characters to Life on the Stage

Ahh, the joys and challenges of character development – where would we be without our beloved protagonists, antagonists, and the entire colorful cast that brings a musical theater production to life? As a longtime playwright and director for our musical theater education and performance center, I’ve had the privilege of crafting countless characters, each with their own unique quirks, motivations, and journeys. And let me tell you, it’s no easy feat!

But fear not, my fellow theater enthusiasts. In this article, I’m going to take you on a deep dive into the art of character development, sharing insights, techniques, and real-world examples that will have you creating unforgettable personas in no time. So grab a cup of coffee (or a nice glass of wine, if that’s more your speed), and get ready to unleash your inner character wizard.

Laying the Groundwork: High Concept and Naming

They say first impressions are everything, and when it comes to characters, that’s certainly the case. The very first step in crafting a captivating persona is to zero in on the high concept – that intriguing, one-sentence hook that sets your character apart from the rest. As the experts at Game Developer point out, this high concept should make your character “interesting, cool, [and] memorable enough to help you cut through the clutter” of the countless other characters vying for your audience’s attention.

Take, for example, the high concept for one of the most iconic musical theater characters of all time: “A reclusive, disfigured genius who haunts the Paris Opera House.” That’s Phantom of the Opera’s titular Phantom in a nutshell – a character who is immediately intriguing, mysterious, and unlike anything the audience has likely seen before.

But the high concept is just the starting point. Next, you need to nail down the character’s name – a critical element that can make or break their initial impression. As the Game Developer article notes, the best character names are “interesting and memorable” while also fitting the persona you’ve envisioned. Think about the instantly iconic monikers of characters like Maria, Tony, and Riff from West Side Story or Elphaba and Glinda from Wicked – each one instantly conjures up a vivid mental image and sets the stage for the character’s personality and role in the story.

Fleshing Out the Details: Character Backgrounders

Okay, so you’ve got your high-concept hook and a snazzy name – now it’s time to really dive into the nitty-gritty of who your character is. This is where the character backgrounder comes into play – a comprehensive document that serves as your character’s “bible,” containing every conceivable detail about their life, personality, and history.

As the Game Developer article advises, these backgrounders can be anywhere from a paragraph or two for minor characters to 10 or 20 pages for your main protagonists. The key is to leave no stone unturned, covering everything from their birthplace and family dynamics to their deepest fears, favorite foods, and past traumas.

This level of in-depth knowledge may seem excessive, but trust me, it pays dividends when it comes time to actually write your script. Knowing your character inside and out allows you to imbue them with a rich, authentic voice and ensure that their actions and reactions always ring true, no matter the situation. It’s the difference between a flat, one-dimensional caricature and a fully realized, multifaceted human being that the audience can’t help but root for (or against, in the case of your antagonists).

Bringing Them to Life: Concept Art and Model Sheets

Of course, character development isn’t just about the written word – it’s also a highly visual process. That’s where concept art and model sheets come into play, providing a tangible, visual representation of your creatively-conceived personas.

As the Game Developer article highlights, working with a talented concept artist can be an absolute game-changer, as they bring a unique creative vision to the table that may surpass even your own mental image of the character. And the model sheets they produce – detailing everything from the character’s various poses and expressions to the nitty-gritty of their physical attributes – serve as an invaluable reference for the entire production team, ensuring visual consistency throughout the show.

Just imagine the Phantom of the Opera without his iconic masked visage or the endearing, gap-toothed grin of Seymour from Little Shop of Horrors. These instantly recognizable visual cues are the result of meticulous concept art and model sheet work – and they’re every bit as crucial to character development as the backstories and dialogue we’ve already discussed.

Defining the Moves: Choreographing Character Physicality

But we’re not done yet! Character development extends beyond just appearance and backstory – it also encompasses the way they move and interact with their environment. And in the world of musical theater, that means carefully choreographing their physical embodiment on the stage.

As the Game Developer article points out, unique character “moves” – be it Lara Croft’s signature tuck-and-roll or Mario’s butt-whomp – can be a powerful tool for defining a persona and making them stand out from the crowd. And the same principle applies to our musical theater characters, whether it’s the graceful, balletic movements of a prima ballerina or the awkward, shuffling gait of a nervous, introverted bookworm.

Heck, even the way a character reacts to their own “death” can be a stroke of brilliantly choreographed characterization, à la Crash Bandicoot’s delightfully charred-to-ash demise. Imagine the comedic potential of a musical theater character who, upon meeting their untimely end, transforms into a pair of blinking eyes amidst a pile of ashes – it’s the kind of distinctive, memorable touch that can elevate a character from forgettable to unforgettable.

Giving Them a Voice: Dialogue and Vocal Characterization

Of course, no discussion of character development would be complete without diving into the realm of dialogue and vocal characterization. After all, the words a character speaks and the way they speak them can be just as defining as their physical attributes or backstory.

As the Game Developer article notes, finding an interesting and consistent “manner of speech” for each character is crucial, whether it’s the formal, contractionless delivery of a robot à la Asimov’s R. Daneel Olivaw or the suave, witty banter of a character like Casablanca’s Louis Renault. And don’t forget the power of a good catchphrase – that instantly recognizable line that becomes as much a part of the character’s identity as their name or appearance.

But it’s not just the words themselves that matter – the way they’re delivered can be equally impactful. As the article points out, voice characterization is a “fantastic way to get a lot of bang for your buck,” allowing you to telegraph a character’s personality through the nuances of their vocal performance. Just imagine how much Mario’s infectious enthusiasm and boundless energy is conveyed through those enthusiastic grunts and whoops, even without any actual dialogue.

Revealing the True Character

Alright, so we’ve covered the fundamentals of character design – the high concepts, the names, the backstories, the visuals, the physicality, and the voices. But now it’s time to tackle the real meat of character development: revealing their true, underlying nature.

As the Game Developer article eloquently states, “true character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.” In other words, it’s not enough to simply create a well-rounded persona – you need to put them through the wringer, subjecting them to increasingly intense challenges and conflicts that strip away their carefully-crafted exterior and lay bare their innermost desires, fears, and core values.

Think about the heartwrenching choice faced by the player-character in the game Stationfall – kill your loyal robot companion, Floyd, to stop a world-ending catastrophe, or condemn all of humanity to save your friend. As the article points out, this type of high-stakes decision-making is the key to unlocking a character’s true nature, revealing the depth of their moral fiber and the very essence of who they are.

Of course, achieving this level of character depth and revelation can be a daunting challenge, especially in the interactive, nonlinear world of musical theater. But that’s where the power of interactivity and player agency comes into play. As the article suggests, by empowering the audience to make their own choices and discover aspects of themselves through the characters, you can create a truly transformative theatrical experience that goes beyond mere entertainment and into the realm of self-discovery.

Bringing it All Together: A Case Study in Character Development

To bring all of these concepts to life, let’s take a look at a real-world example of exceptional character development in the world of musical theater: Arthur Fleck, better known as the Joker, from the hit 2019 film Joker.

This complex, multifaceted character embodies so many of the principles we’ve discussed throughout this article. First, the high-concept hook is instantly captivating: “A mentally ill, socially ostracized man who transforms into a violent criminal mastermind.” As the psychiatric analysis on the Psychiatry and Psychotherapy Podcast points out, Arthur Fleck’s journey is one of “deep underlying depression, pseudobulbar affect, [and] traumatic brain injury” – a rich, deeply human tapestry of trauma and mental illness that sets the stage for his eventual transformation into the iconic Joker.

Arthur’s name, too, is a masterful stroke of character design – a seemingly innocuous, common name that belies the chaos and darkness lurking beneath the surface. And the visual representation, from his gaunt, disheveled appearance to his unsettling, manic laugh, is the perfect embodiment of a tortured soul on the brink of unraveling.

But it’s in the realm of true character revelation that the Joker truly shines. As the psychiatric analysis observes, Arthur’s descent into violence is not simply a result of his mental illness, but a series of choices and events that strip away his carefully-constructed facade, exposing the depth of his longing for connection, validation, and meaning. The greater the pressure he faces – from societal rejection to personal tragedies – the more his true, uncompromising nature emerges, culminating in the film’s harrowing climax.

And while the Joker is ultimately a villain, the depth of his characterization and the empathy the audience feels for his plight is a testament to the power of revealing a character’s true self. As the Reddit analysis of Bakugou’s character arc in My Hero Academia so eloquently states, “the problem with his narrative that murder will make things better is that chaos leads to more chaos” – a lesson that rings true not just for fictional characters, but for all of us navigating the complexities of the human experience.

Putting it All Together at the Musical Theater Center

At the end of the day, crafting truly captivating characters is about so much more than just checklist of physical attributes and backstory details. It’s about digging deep, peeling back the layers, and revealing the complex, flawed, and intensely human core at the heart of each and every persona that graces the stage.

And that’s exactly the approach we strive for here at the Musical Theater Center. From our rigorous script analysis workshops to our collaborative character design sessions, we’re committed to equipping our students and aspiring playwrights with the tools and techniques they need to bring their visions to life in the most authentic, impactful way possible.

So whether you’re dreaming of penning the next great American musical or simply want to hone your skills as a performer, I encourage you to embrace the challenge of character development. Dig into those backstories, experiment with unique physicalities, and above all, don’t be afraid to put your characters through the wringer – because it’s in those moments of highest pressure that their true, unforgettable selves will emerge.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top