Biographical Playwriting III: Character & Plot
Updated: Jul 26, 2022
Character and plot are simultaneously easier and more difficult to develop in a biographical play. They are easier because you have real people and events to base your play on. The pressure to create an original plot and characters out of merely your own imagination is taken away. The flip side is that you must consider the responsibility of portraying real people as fictional characters and real events not necessarily how they actually happened. This, like theatricality versus reality, is a balance you will have to find for yourself.
It is good practice to create characters with elements of real people in general. Even when you are not writing a biographical play, using elements of real people you observe in your characters adds a three-dimensional life to them. In a biographical play, you must consider what parts of the real person make a good character. Are they witty? Do they have a quick temper? Are they immeasurably kind? What aspects of their personality drive this story forward?
More often than not, you want to create characters inspired by real people. It’s the best way to avoid insulting or embarrassing your source. After all, you’re the one that is going to need to develop the character’s motivations and reasons for everything they do. A key part of this is the names you give your characters. Unless you are writing a docu-play, you are most likely going to need to change the character names. Names are very important. Most sources will have this as one of their terms. It protects them and gives you that little bit more freedom to develop your own characters rather than being chained to representing a real person to perfection.
Before you begin writing you need to be able to answer the question:
What about this story makes you want to tell it?
This is your driving force when creating the plot of your biographical play. Take the exercise from the last post and consider the kind of story that the real events imply. Is it a revenge story? A redemption story? A desperate attempt at freedom? What needs to be added or taken away from the real events to tell that story?
The best advice I can give you is to simplify the story. Get it down to its bare bones and add from there. Real-life is rarely simple, so simplifying your story will be a huge benefit. What details are necessary to the core story? It may be a fun detail, but do we really need to know about the main character’s neighbor's bizarre obsession with antique dolls? Do we even need to know about the neighbor? Can their tiny part in the real-life story be given to another, more active character?
Some more general plot tips:
Do your research. You may not use all of it or even a fraction of it in the end. But it’s better to know all you can about the time period, culture, events, locale, and people in the real events so you can make informed decisions about what to keep and what to invent.
Beware of front-loading your play. This is a common issue with playwrights (myself very much included). The beginning of the play ends up being overwritten and the second half ends up being rushed. Endings are important. Try writing the ending first, then the beginning, and filling in the journey between.
Exposition is one of the most difficult things to do. Particularly with biographical plays, you want the audience to know all of the pertinent information before you feel like you can get into the meat of the story. Take a step back and determine what information the audience needs to know right away and what can be drip-fed throughout the play. Remember, the key sign of bad exposition is characters telling each other information they already know.
Cutting is difficult with a biographical play. Even though you need to shave off 10 minutes, that one scene is really funny and it actually happened! Remember your simplified plot and return to it. The only scenes you really need are the ones that tell that story. It's tough, but you get the scissor out and cut it!
To help develop your characters, try filling out this Character Questionnaire. Go back to it several times and highlight where you used your source to answer the questions and where you invented answers. Does this character need to be that close to reality? Is it even remotely close to the real person? Are you satisfied with this character? Do you feel like they are a real person in your head, separate from the source?
Into the Woods by John York is a fantastic book on plot and story structure. He comes from a TV background and his methods do not include diverse dramaturgies, but it is a good place to start.
For more diverse views on story structure and playwriting try:
Feminist Dramaturgy: Notes from No-(Wo)man’s Land by Laura Hope & Philippa Kelly
Queer Dramaturgies: International Perspectives on Where Performance Leads Queer edited by Alyson Campbell & Stephen Farrier
“The Dramaturgy of Disability” by Victoria Ann Lewis
These suggestions are just jumping-off points for you to start your own research into plot and story structure. As an art form, theatre is being questioned and interrogated about our previously-held beliefs. We are pushing the art form into a more inclusive and diverse realm. Don’t be afraid of it, embrace it, and do your research!