Character and Plot 2: The Terrible Twos

Picture a toddler in the middle of the Terrible Twos: you tell them specifically not to do something, they either do it immediately or spend the next few hours determinedly trying to find a way around whatever obstacle or hindrance you’ve put in their way to prevent them from carrying out the forbidden task. The Germans have a word for it: ‘Trotzkind’, literally, ‘a defiance child’, with all the connotations of defiance for defiance’s sake. And what Trotzkinder and Terrible Twos toddlers have that your characters need is that overwhelming sense of purpose and desire to achieve a set objective, ‘trotzt’ or despite the odds.

Last week, I introduced the idea of actors using objectives to analyse plays for performance. How does this actually work? Well, let’s start simple: take an empty stage with a chair on it. Character A enters. Her objective is to sit on a chair. There is only one chair, so she sits. So far so good: not particularly dramatic, but at least the action is clear and the audience is now focused on the character and the chair and is waiting for the next event.


Enter Character B. Her objective is also to sit on a chair. But wait—the chair is occupied—Character A is still sitting on it! Now the audience are watching with interest. How will Character B react? What will she do? What about Character A? How will she react?  And the key question for the audience: what will happen next? Without any long character explanations or convoluted plot twists and frenetic action, we’ve already set up an intriguing dramatic scenario.

Of course, both characters don’t have to have the same objective, as long as some conflict of purpose between them remains. Character A’s objective may well be to be the only person seated on stage—so what does she do when Character B decides to achieve her objective by going off to find another chair?

A character’s objective can change within a scene as they react to another characters’ actions.


For example, in the above scenario, Character A might decide that the only way of preventing Character B bringing on another chair is to block up the entrances to the stage. In that case, blocking up the entrances becomes her new unit objective (her new purpose), but the overall super-objective of being the only person seated on stage remains and dictates all her further actions and reactions.

This is the great thing about using objectives—they act as a vital point of reference to link all the action and dialogue for a character and prevent a scene, an act or, indeed, even a whole novel going merrily off on a tangent. Because if it threatens to go AWOL on you, just play the objective and bring it back. Remember the Trotzkind: what is my purpose? Why am I here and what am I trying to do?

Building a Character: What kind of animal am I?

No, I’m not going crazy. Figuring out what kind of animal your character might be is a basic acting exercise familiar to theatre actors, and it can be a useful character building tool for authors also. Basically, actors use ‘animal work’ to explore the essence of a character. The trick is to progress beyond the simple representation of roaring, mewing or squeaking, beyond even the clichés – ‘wily as a fox’, ‘quiet as a mouse’ or ‘greedy as a pig’ – to an internalization which will give a fully rounded and nuanced physicality recognizable (albeit often on a subconscious level) by an audience.

So using an animal reference can be a great way of getting a quick handle on a character, either in your own mind or in the mind of your reader.  Like a form of visual shorthand.

With his dull brown hair, large eyes and perpetually twitching nose, Mr Doulton resembled a rather dim-witted mouse, but Hannah soon found to her cost that his personality was pure ferret, and nasty, bad-tempered ferret at that.’

Two sides to every animal 

References to animals have powerful connotations and it is these connotations (for good or bad) that can be utilized by writers and actors alike.

Take the pig, for example.  Even when used positively, there is an underlying sense of uncontrolled appetite about them that can be exploited.

‘Hannah could barely hide her laughter. The fact was that Mr Blower had all the appearance of a rather jolly pig stuffed into an expensively-tailored suit.’ 

Of course, you don’t necessarily need the full animal – you can still work from the basic pig image, but highlight certain aspects with equally powerful effect.

Mr Blower was a short, rotund man with little, piggy eyes and ludicrously tiny feet.’ 


‘Mr Blower’s hair was coarse and blonde, bristling to a peak on top of his head. His nose was snub and the corners of his mouth turned upwards in a perpetual porcine grin.’

Obviously, you need to use animal references wisely and sparingly, otherwise your play or novel will begin to resemble some form of bizarre humanoid barnyard or an exotic zoo with an Orwellian theme. The whole point is, of course, to get the writer or actor’s imagination working beyond the obvious: to look for and think about physical nuances which not only set each character apart from the others, but also give an indication of what makes them tick.