10 Minute Masterclass | How to write a character with their own autonomy

Since closing our doors, the Bush team has continued working hard to bring exciting new voices to the UK stage. As part of this work, we are producing a series of 10 Minute Masterclasses to support anyone who is interested in writing and plays.

In our latest 10 Minute Masterclass, Bush Associate Director, Daniel Bailey, helps you create a complex character through a series of exercises, including:

  • Asking 25 questions
  • Splitting your character in two
  • Creating a timeline

Watch the full 10 Minute Masterclass or read the full transcript below.

During this difficult time any donation, big or small, will play a part in ensuring we can continue to support writers. Please click here to donate if you can.

Watch our previous 10 Minute Masterclass on using musical showstoppers to improve your writing.

Yo! Hello and welcome, my name’s Daniel Bailey, Associate Director at the Bush Theatre. This is #TenMinuteMasterclasses and today we’re about to get into characters because why not!
Great characters make great plays, and of course the story. There are many different facets to great stories but great characters are who we get invested in, who we go that emotional journey with and who drive the plot. So some of my favourite characters are Mama from A Raisin In The Sun by Lorraine Hansberry – here’s some of her titled pieces. Johnny from Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem – If you don’t know, get to know! Sophia Adams from Errol John’s Moon On A Rainbow Shawl, but to name a few. But these seminal personalities took us on these emotional, gripping journeys. They were complex, they were full and had real purpose. 
So how do we create one? Whether you’ve got a character already or whether you’re just starting out, this should be a fun accessible way for you to explore your characters or create one.
♪ Would you like that? ♪
♪ Would you write back? ♪
♪ You know a nightcap? ♪
♪ You know you like that. ♪
Anyway, so that obviously makes sense! 50 Cent, 21 Questions plus four is 25 questions! 
I do a version of 25 questions because I like to present another 25 questions to my actors when it gets to rehearsals. So I will do 25 questions first for the character and then hopefully, once the play gets to rehearsals I’ll do another 25 questions, as actors also influence and inform who the character is.
So I’m going to show you my 25 questions or my 50 questions bootleg version style! You can take from this what you need to take from it. It is roughly questions about your character’s upbringing so you just have a bit of a foundation, but it can be as meaningful or as deep as you want them to be, or as superficial and fun as you want them to be. There might be a funny story that you really wanna find within your character or discover in your character. So have a look – I am not gonna read out all 25 because that is long! So I’m gonna show you. Pause your video if you need to look over my scruffy handwriting again – please forgive for the little scrubs out but, yo! This is life, init. It’s real life. So have a look: 
[25 questions are shown on screen]
Shocking, I can’t even hold the thing properly!
So as you can see I’ve done 26 questions. I’ve just done an extra one, just because I was feeling a little fruity. – What? Say something. Can do what I like, it’s my video! 
So I’ve got a 26th question which is ‘What secrets do they hold?’ So, my first question is ‘How old is the character?’ As I said I won’t go through all 25, but just so you get a gist of what I’m doing – ‘What is the character’s full name?’ So forename, middle name, surname. ‘Where does their name come from?’ ‘Who gave them this?’ I didn’t even put a question mark on that, but I said it’s live init, you understand. This is 21 questions…
[So Solid Crew – 21 Seconds]
plus five!
So, once you’ve done your 25 questions or 26 questions in my case, you move on. You’ve got your foundation, you’ve got a bit more clarity on who your character is, where they come from, what they do for a living, how they think and feel. Characteristics help us cement that idea of who they are and how they react in any given scenario, so they have a bit of a moral compass. 
Here’s an example I’ve done – here’s one I’ve done earlier! As an example I’ve split this up into two things – desirable characteristics and undesirable characteristics. And usually I will see them as separate people at first, so I split my character into two – into character A and character B. A – I give them all the undesirable characteristics and B – I give them the desirable characteristics. I’ve said that word so many times now. 
If you if you think I’m going too fast then just take your time, pause the video, have a look again, go back, check and see if my durag’s on properly. 
So as you can see, I’ve put a star by ‘unpredictable’ because it can be a desirable trait and it can also be an undesirable trait, so it’s all subjective. You can choose your characteristics for yourself.
The second part of Exercise 2 is for me to amalgamate the character again, so I put A and B back together again and I make C. See what I did there? C for characteristics. C for…
[Ciara – Level Up]
C for Ci Ci. I put all of those characters together and I make my protagonist C. So, between the characteristics that you have and the questions that you’ve got, it’s good for you to go back over them, see which ones contradicts which. Sometimes contradiction is great because that’s what creates complex characters. We are walking contradictions, but it’ll be good to go over them just to make sure that they’re not too opposing otherwise it’s not believable and they’re not plausible, but of course there are things that work. So I’m just gonna use an example – your character can be absolutely loyal but also be dishonest. Or, very ambitious but also quite materialistic. So some of these things work for each other, some of them don’t, but in any given scenario your character will be able to think with autonomy because you’ve given them the characteristics and you’ve answered the question.
So timelines are really important for us so we can chart the journey of our character from the start right to the end. Sometimes it’s the end of the play, sometimes the end of their life, you can decide what’s more important for you. But it’s also important to collaborate with your director and your actors to fill in a bit of that timeline. So the timeline will usually have key events in their lives, so when they were born perhaps, where they lived in the first 10 years of their life, where they ended up by the time they got to 20, events that might have been traumatic or had a lasting effect on them, so it might be the day that someone’s grandpa passed away or it might be the day that they got accepted into private school or whatever it is, but something that’s important to that character and also relevant to the story. 
Now, doing a timeline is fun but also you kind of get lost in this black hole sometimes – pulling out key events that you think relevant but it’s not actually really that relevant to your story. That’s why I say leave some of it quite open so when you get to collaborate with your actors and your director, they can fill that stuff in.
So here’s an example that I’ve done: So character C, which is what we left off from – it’s a really simple timeline. 1990 my character is born in Kingston, Jamaica. In 1995 they move to England aged five; watches the World Cup in 1998, aged 8. That was obviously a major event in their life because what happens next is they join QPR in 2001 as part of the youth team aged 11. In 2005 they join Liverpool FC age 15, which is another key event in their life, and then in 2007 has their first team debut aged 17. Some of you will know who that character is, I’ve changed the dates a little bit but some of you will know who that is. But I’ve also left this part quite blank because that’s the stuff that you might fill in when you get into rehearsals or even before rehearsals as part of your actor’s pack. I won’t explain what actors pack is, look it up!
And this is where your character might start, so let’s say your story starts really from here – so age 17 their first team debut – so we catch them at this point here, they’re at a high of their career so far and then we fill in the rest once we know the story.
So yeah, that’s it!