Theme and character

© D.P. O'Sullivan

Thoughts on character and motivation.

Describe each main character as follows:

Deceptively simple and amazingly helpful.

Example: An ambitious young man, who wants to make a million dollars before he reaches 30, plays the stock market and ends up penniless at 25.

Example: An angry and lonely old woman in assisted living, who wants to go home, tricks her helper into taking her home and ends up more alone than before.

Goal, desires and action

A stage character has one overriding goal (Oedipus to find his father's killer). As the play progresses, the character's immediate desires change because of events and, more importantly, their own and the actions of others. The illustration shows action arrows that a character takes over the course of the plot. Goal is fixed and overriding, immediate desires change continuously and cause action arrows which drive the plot.

Character action arrows are expressed in speech and/or physical action.

Example: Tim's goal is to live to an old age and die rich. He is, at this moment (in the plot), sitting with a robber's gun to his head. The robber is demanding the contents of the safe. Tim's goal (to die old and rich) is clashing with any number of immediate desires:

  1. stay alive
  2. not let the robber get the better of him
  3. order in a pizza and share

These immediate desires clash with his goal (die old and rich) and, depending which wins out, he takes one of the following character action arrows:

  1. surrender the safe combination
  2. tell the robber that the safe contains only $15.00 (which happens to be true)
  3. invite the robber to share a pizza
  4. jump up and take a swing

The action he decides on will have serious implications for the plot (not to mention for Tim himself). If he does 1, he may still achieve his goal. If he does 2 or 3, he only delays the real decision a few moments. If he does 4, he dies and fails in his goal.

Assuming Tim does 4, one could test his validity as a stage character with the following character test:

An ambitious young, man who wants to die old and rich, ignores all advice in all matters and dies young and poor.


Theme is discovered (or developed) by applying the test to the protagonist. If Tim is the protagonist, the theme is "reckless greed."