Tag Archives: age

In Character

At the start of every play there is (or at least, there should be, even for a monologue), a list of roles.  The main point of this list is to tell the reader who’s in the play.  The reader might be a producer, director or actor, it might also be the publicist for a show.  I have some strong views about what should be in this list – and what should not.  These are opinions, of course, but they are based on some degree of rationality…

They’re Characters

I take the view that ‘cast‘ means the actors who play the characters.  The list should therefore be headed ‘Characters’.  (You could also say Dramatis Personae, but only if you want to sound pompous.)

Name Names

I know it sounds obvious, but the character list should list every character, preferably by name, but certainly with a clear tie to the way lines are assigned in the body of the script.  Thus if the lines are assigned to “Man”, the Character list should include “Man” (rather than Mr Smith), though it would be better to give him a name in both places.  (When I wrote that in another post, Andrew Allen took to Twitter (@my_grayne) with the excellent response “I always name characters if for no other reason than: ‘Helen’ looks better on an actor’s CV than ‘Woman 4’”)

There really is nothing like a dame!Elementary Sexism

If a character’s gender is essential to the plot and not obvious from the name, then it needs to be stated in the character list (because you really don’t want to make a fool of the casting director).
Sam could be male or female, and if this matters, it is better to say which.  Mrs Bonaventure is obviously female, so you don’t need to comment on gender unless your character is a drag artiste.

Relationship Status

The relationship between characters can be useful, usually as a pointer to relative age.  For example describing Gemma as ‘Steve’s daughter’ puts some useful constraints on casting.  (But how old is Gemma?  If it’s germane to the plot, then ‘Steve’s teenage daughter’ or ‘Steve’s adult daughter’ is appropriate but more constraining.)
It isn’t Complicated
Describing Liz as ‘Steve’s third wife, previously married to Anton and having an affair with Carl’ is mainly information that the reader should discover in the text.  (And if it isn’t part of the plot, then it’s irrelevant.)  Usually ‘Steve’s wife’ will be enough.

A wicked squireRole in the play

Squire Blackheart – the Villain.
If the characters are not related to one another, it may be useful to say the role that they play in the drama.  This may, in the above melodramatic example, be a generic type (useful in things like pantomime – Principal Boy, Principal Girl, Dame – because it tells the reader what to expect from the role.)  It may also be a job, because it helps the reader to distinguish between ‘Sister Louise – a nun’ and ‘Sister Sara – a nurse’.


If a character’s age is essential to the plot, then it should be stated in the character list, either as a very specific age, or as a range.  (The broader the range, the less essential it would seem to be – and ‘relationship’ would be the more likely determinant of casting.
I am rather cautious about putting in ages, and I have a general feeling that this should be the last item in most descriptions.  The reason for this is that one of the potential uses of the character list is for the publicist to copy and paste into the programme for the show.  In that case, age may be a distraction – it may have been useful to the director in casting the roles, but once they’re cast, they are what they are.

Lose the Plot

The character list should not reveal the plot.  Get rid of anything that hasn’t happened yet that will happen in the story.  Get rid of any secrets that will be revealed by the script: ‘Paul the gardener, Ingrid’s long-lost son’ is plot.  Imagine that cut and pasted into the programme for the show.  This is not the place to give it away.

Eschew Adjectives

The character list is not the place for a pen-portrait of your character.  If you find yourself writing ‘she is timid, but anxious to please and to be liked’ then delete it.  That part of the character’s behaviour should be evident in the script, and the actor should be encouraged to find it there.  You should not use the character list to tell the reader something they can’t find in the text.  If there’s an essential back story and it isn’t in the text, how is the actor supposed to communicate it to the audience?  (Even if you put it in the show programme, not everyone buys one and not everyone absorbs every word before the curtain rises.)
A show of hands for AbanazaThere is a case to be made for giving a character portrait for cases where a casting call might occur before the actors have seen the script, but if you wish to do that, it belongs in production notes at the end of the text, not in the character list.  Likewise costume descriptions belong in production notes, not in the character list.
The one thing that might be legitimate in the character list is some physical characteristic that is essential to the plot (so, for example, if Gary must be taller than Jeff, that’s important to casting).

The Final Test

Does the description fit on a single line?  If not, it’s far too long.  This encompasses all of the above points, but is also an aesthetic choice – if each description fits on one line, it just looks better.

The Age of the Greengrocer

I keep coming across writers – writers: people who delight in the manipulation of words – who render someone’s age as “40’s”.

Why?  What is that apostrophe doing?

An apostrophe stands in the place of some text commonly acknowledged to be missing.  (I live on the outskirts of So’ton, where the apostrophe is commonly acknowledged to cover for the missing “uthamp”.)  In the case of the age, we are looking at a plural – indicating any one of the years of a decade.  In this respect, forty is treated like pony.  The plural ends in ies: ponies.  What’s missing?  If we wrote it pony’s, it would be a possessive: the pony’s saddle.  The text commonly acknowledged to be missing in a possessive is “his”, but it’s so long since anybody used “the pony his saddle” in full that the long form is in total disuse.  The only place I can recall ever coming across it is in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island where the account book of the pirate Bill Bones refers to his share of the loot as “Bones his pile”, but Stevenson was using a deliberate archaism to make the character sound piratical.

Back to the case in point, is 40s a possessive?  No, of course it isn’t.  Forty does not claim ownership of anything.  The age is the thing possessed, in this case by a person in the character list of a play.  You can see that if you write out the character description in full, where we can see the age being conveyed by “his”: George, an engineer in his 40s.

The objection here is that writing the ess next to the zero looks odd.  Fair enough, but if you can’t bear to write a letter next to a numeral, then write out the word forties.

An acute case of greengrocer's apostrophe
Greengrocer’s apostrophe: an acute case.

How Old is Susan?

The Unknown SusanSome years ago, Alan Weeks and I got obsessed with frequencies of names.  Alan did the analysis and found that the most common names in North Baddesley were Patricia and Margaret.  Later, I took this further by predicting demographics on the basis of name frequency: there is a fashion in the naming of children, as in so much else, so you can make a reasonable prediction of age based on popularity of name.  (Margaret was most probably a child of the 1930s or 40s, Patricia peaked in the 40s or 50s.)

This becomes relevant to play-writing in the business of naming characters.  Names need to match the ages of the characters in the era in which they are set.  So, for example, in England, peak Susan happened in about 1955.  That means that for a play set in 2014, you would expect most Susans to be in their late fifties to early sixties.  A Susan who is eighteen seems out of place.  Now, of course, if you want to disturb your audience, then giving a character an unexpected name may be a legitimate ploy, but if you want immediate acceptance, then the name, age and era need to match.

Being fashion accessories, names are cyclic.  Violet went out of fashion in the 1920s along with Doris but seems to be staging a come-back.  Sam (for men) peaked even earlier, alongside Phyllis (not for men!) and started a major return in the 1980s.  Being cautious about this, there are always a few outliers.  There are the out-of-era names given in honour of an ancestor, and there are the names that don’t really fit in any era: I was idling after a tour of Monterey Bay Aquarium when I overheard a mother admonish her child with “Stop that, Amadeus!”

Fashions for names vary enormously with geography.  I was careful to specify England with respect to Susans.  I once called on someone named Phyllis, expecting to be greeted by a nonagenarian only to find a Scotswoman in her early thirties.  Names in the USA are more diverse and are not synchronised with England; hence I was once discomforted to find myself working with a Doris who was younger than me.  It becomes even more difficult when dealing with names from non-Anglophone countries.  There was, for example, my business correspondence with a Dutchwoman called Anne; turned-out to be a bloke with a moustache.