Writing Characters

For this week’s blog article, I’ve had a rummage through some of Alan Ayckbourn’s own articles and found a rarely seen piece from 1986 in which the playwright discusses writing characters.

Writing Characters by Alan Ayckbourn

First, I never write a character unless I have some affection for them, however fleeting. Were I to include a person I really loathed and had no sympathy or even interest for, that character would undoubtedly be two dimensional because I would have no interest in their past or future and only a fleeting interest in their present.

Secondly, I always try to allow my characters their own destinies. At least, I do these days. That comes I suppose with the confidence of thirty plus produced plays behind me. It was not always so. In those early days of writing, most of us manoeuvre our poor little people around our chess boards, demanding that they be here on page 20 and over there on page 70.

Alan Ayckbourn in 1986 (© The Scarborough News)

These days, thanks to a certain instinctive technique (which I liken to no more than driving a car) I can allow my creations to wander rather more freely without the ball and chain, the strict timetable of a rigorous plot. Only in my occasional farces (Taking Steps for instance) does the plot still reign supreme.

Third, I’ve always been interested in pushing back the boundaries, at least when I started, of what apparently could or could not be done in a comedy. It seemed to me then, and it still does, that if I could find enough ground, a sufficiently large area of human nature to explore within a comedy, there would never be any need for me to tie one hand behind my back and write a tragedy!

Simply, I’ve always held secretly that comedies were just tragedies with more laughs and tragedies became tragedies when it was no longer possible to laugh. All the best tragedies have comedy within them (even if, alas, so many directors choose to ignore it) and, of course, all the best comedies have within them the seeds of tragedy e.g Chekhov.

Though, once again, these also suffer innumerable productions where the sadness is ignored or covered over by frenetic performers desperately in search of their next laugh.

As it is, I think much of my work these days falls on that middle ground between comedy and tragedy. I am fascinated in trying to balance on that knife edge. To see half an audience horrified and the other half amused. The greater the pain, the more desperate the need for humour. That’s true in plays as well as life, I think.

Alan Ayckbourn, 1986

If you’re interested in finding out more about Alan Ayckbourn’s thoughts on writing and directing, his book The Crafty Art of Playmaking (Faber, 2002) offers a comprehensive guide to his thoughts and experiences on the subjects. It is available from the Ayckbourn Shop at his official website or directly via Amazon.

Article by Alan Ayckbourn and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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