Characters and the relationship journey

By Timothy Daly

This chapter should probably be called an exploration of the Bleeding Obvious, but experience of reading many writers’ work persuades me it’s less obvious than might be assumed. Actors, directors and writers are always talking about the ‘character journey’. Even critics get in on the act. Think of Dorothy Parker’s scathing comment on a Katharine Hepburn performance: “She ran the gamut of emotions from A to B”. This may have been the fault of the writing as much as the acting, and the judgement is predicated on the notion that a dramatic character begins at a particular point, and by the permutations and pressures of story is forced to several new positions, all marked by different emotional responses and states.

But so is a ‘relationship journey’, and for some strange reason it’s much less talked and analysed about, even though a relationship journey in plays is as common and necessary as a character journey. Hence this article. I apologise if the following is too obvious to be discussed. We clearly haven’t met, and I haven’t read your work, for in the majority of my fellow writers’ work I find there are big problems in the characters that can be traced to a failure to understand the notion of the ‘relationship journey’. Thus, if this is too obvious for you, please accept my apologies, and I’ll buy you a drink at your next opening night.

Like most journeys, the relationship journey is marked by phases, which I identify below. I’ll also indicate what I think are the basic ‘technical’ aspects involved in the writing of these phases. There are, however, exceptions and qualifications to these phases, which I’ll also address.

1. The Collision of Strangers

In many stories and plays, characters do not set out to meet each other. They encounter each other accidentally, and do not welcome the encounter when it comes. Thus, this first meeting is often accompanied by a surprising degree of conflict. But there are also other things: fate, coincidence, danger and threat. One way to see dramatic characters and their effect on each other is to think like this: “The person that character A meets will be the one person s/he most dreads, but for whom, in retrospect, is most necessary to his/her spiritual survival.” (Notice that I write ‘spiritual survival’ rather than ‘physical survival’; while plays can deal with matters physical, its supreme achievement is putting onstage characters whose soul, mind or psyche is at risk.)

Some technical aspects of this phase: high conflict leading to some turning point moment, where you give the characters (and the audience) a reason for this relationship to continue. (I’ve seen/read so many plays where I know the audience would ask “Why would s/he ever see this other person again?”) It’s also in this initial phase that the social reality of the characters (and the play) is sketched in: where they come from, what sort of town it is etc. You don’t go overboard, but explain enough to give the opening encounter some reality and bite.

2. From Strangers to Friends

As I said, characters often need a reason to return or come back into contact with each other. They usually need a reason to be still trying to deal with each other. (Its one reason why the over-worked ‘family play’ is trotted out; families don’t need a reason to re-encounter each other.) But strangers do. There’s another benefit to bringing a stranger into the world of a play. Put simply, they bring the audience in with them. The audience follows the stranger in. The audience thinks, “I’m a stranger (to this world/story) too. I’ll follow her and see what she learns.” The word ‘learns’ is crucial here. You’d tell a stranger things that an insider would already know. But the most important thing about this phase is that friendship or closeness should not be won easily. When a character starts off his journey in a play, he is usually wedded to the psychological state he has been living in. Just because a stranger arrives is no reason for him to think, “Oh, I’ll change my life, because she (the stranger) has challenged me to.” In other words, the stranger is still being resisted, even at this 2nd encounter.

Technical aspects of this phase: as indicated, a great resistance to change one the part of at least one character; a diminishing of the social function (that is, the reason for the return visit/encounter) in favour of an emphasis on the personal/psychological encounter. In other words, they get personal. Thus, more (and deeper) character information comes out. The conflict is heightened; a sense of one of the character’s personal dilemmas is hinted at and starts to have a life of its own. (See it like this: the arrival of character B presses buttons in A that s/he didn’t even know still existed; chaos is starting to foment inside A, and the foment is highly unwelcome.) The turning point of this phase is more permanent than the turning point of the previous phase. In fact, it’s probably closer to a ‘breakthrough’ than a turning point, as the conflict has probably made something huge and important start to happen inside the soul of the character who resists.

3. From Friends to… (Lovers/Soul Mates/Second Self.)

I use the word ‘friend’ very advisedly. It’s often the wrong term for the types of dramatic relationships that are possible in plays. In real life, do friends fight as much as the average dramatic relationship? Probably not, and that’s because in real life, friends exists on the social surface. But in plays, a ‘friend’ is closer to ‘enemy’ because they are fighting over possession of your soul, and dealing with deep, nasty, hidden, private, volatile and painful things that the dramatic character would rather remain hidden. Hence there’s usually more conflict in plays than real life. But for all the resistance to character change, it still occurs, and eventually the relationship of A and B has become important to each other. In this vital phase, lots of things start to happen: the characters may start to enjoy each other’s company (instead of just pretending to, as before). They may start to need each other (for business, personal, sexual or psychological reasons). The relationship may become co-dependent and even addictive. It’s at this point that a character finally ‘confesses’ things: about the true state of her soul, about what she really wants from life and the other character; and at this phase a glimpse of the character’s personal Heaven and Hell is first seen (and certainly first explained.)

Technical aspects of this phase: this phase, being so big and important for the characters (and the play) usually takes more than a single scene (unlike the previous two phases); risk should be involved for one or both of the characters; (that is, “If I do this, I will lose x, y and z.”) Crucially, whatever has attracted each to the other should appear (for the first time?) as holding out the possibility of salvation on a much wider level for one or both of the characters. And what marks the climax of this phase is not turning point (though there may be one in the scene), and not breakthrough (as with the previous phase) but culmination. In other words, for at least one of the characters, this journey into further closeness is a solution and end-point for him/her. It seems like all his/her troubles are over. (That’s why this phase often marks the end of the first part—sometimes even the first act—of a full-length play.)

4. The False Honeymoon

This phase is often marked by delirium, or at the very least, an excitement, an enthusiasm. For in this phase, one or both characters in the relationship think that their problems have been solved. Thus, they apply new energy to resurrected old plans, or think up entirely new plans. Humour, sexiness (whether the relationship is sexual or not) and bursts of energy mark this phase.

Technical aspects of this phase: Brevity also marks this phase, for delirium can’t last forever, in life or drama. It’s also here where your language is most expansive, visionary, utopian, excitable etc. Don’t work too hard on giving the audience lots of reasons to doubt the future viability of the relationship: the audience’s own intelligence will know this. Let them enjoy this ‘honeymoon’ phase while it lasts, for we all know how long that usually is.

5. Problems (Re-)Develop

This phase is (sadly) where life meets art. What seems such a great idea (that is, the previous phase) starts to be questioned (and this time, it’s by both characters and audience). Weaknesses in the relationship become obvious. The strategy of one or both is starting to fail. Some of the pressure that marked earlier phases is starting to return.

Technical aspects of this phase: Try and have at least one of the characters hang on to the utopian dream which made them enter this relationship. (In a sense, all dramatic relationships are utopian dreams, founded on beliefs/attitudes that the story will put such pressures on as to render them unworkable.) Related to this, keep them pushing for what they want, even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.

6. The Crisis Grows

And the evidence should be mounting. Let crises grow at an exponential rate (that is, where the rate of increase keeps increasing). Let conflict resurface. Let a sense of desperation appear, and wild strategies be thought of in response to the Hellish visions and horrible events that are looming. Let the Old (the person s/he was) reappear along with the New (the person s/he was trying to be.)

Technical aspects of this phase: rapid escalation of plot and the problems that plot brings; nasty surprises; a rapidity of events the characters can’t keep up with; a wild sense of conflict between characters as they turn on each other; generally, this phase should not be too long and drawn out. It should feel like a fast climb up a very steep hill called the Hill of Tension.

7. Showdown/Decision Time

And at the top of this hill lies…a narrow plateau called Suspense. What will happen to the characters? What will happen to the relationship? At this phase, the central interest is who will win/lose and what this will do to the relationship.

Technical aspects of this phase: the scene(s) where this phase occurs can be a mixture of quiet (suspense) and loud (tension, fear, hysteria, violence). The scene often involves a decision. And the decision appears to be final, spelling the end of the relationship or its release into a ‘liveable health’ and future viability.

8. Ending/Beginning

The fascinating thing about this phase is that it often reverses the effect of the previous phase. Just when you thought things were over (or that they were perfect), something happens to qualify or reverse it all. The relationship may have ended formally (or emotionally, sexually, professionally, psychologically etc), but there’s often one final meeting, and at this last meeting, something new happens: it might be a breakthrough into understanding on the part of a character; it might be the release of forgiveness; it might be the hope of resurrection (for a character or the relationship itself.)

Technical aspects of this phase: it tends to reverse the previous phase, or at the very least, to qualify it or render it meaningless. The phase is one of the shortest of all the phases; probably even shorter than the honeymoon phase. There is either a twist or there is a reversal involved. There’s the Chinese Curse Twist: “May you get what you want” (and it proves to be, not heaven, but hell itself.) There’s the ‘Wants Vs Needs’ Twist, that is, where a character who got want she wanted in the previous phase now gives it up because she goes for what she actually needs.

I’ve been necessarily general, because there are so many things you can do with this general pattern of ‘relationship journey’. For example, you can miss out a phase. You can alter the order, or revisit a phase (making the journey as unpredictable as life itself). If it’s a short play, you can situate the entire play within one or two phases. At the very least, you can go fast with this pattern. (I’ve sat in plays where the audience knows the relationship journey from the second scene onward.) The point of this pattern is not to impose it upon your play, but to know it exists, so you can transform it into something volatile, unpredictable and strange—which is how we often see love and life itself.