A long time ago, I was writing plays for a small local theater. In one of these productions, I was forced to make a major character change due to stage logistics and found myself saddled with a character I despised.
But this experience turned into one of the most valuable writing lessons in my career: How to take an idea you hate, but have to write anyway, and fall in love with it. The irony? This same character became my favorite out of all my plays.
Now I apply this same technique every time I find myself growling at a project. It’s helped me stick to my personal goal of never writing something I’m not passionate about.
So, wanna know how I did it?
Because We Didn’t Have a Curtain
One cold day in December, I got a call from Mark, the producer and director. “I read your play, Dani,” he said. He told me he loved it—except for one problem.
“The general store has got to go.”
I was glad he couldn’t see my face. Part of me had known this was coming, but I’d been in denial. Plus I hadn’t been able to come up with a better alternative. The story centered around a couple of hold-up men in the Old West, and, well, they needed something to hold up. But the play also called for frequent setting changes. And at our reconstructed frontier theater, we had no stage curtain. (The deprivations of frontier life.)
“The audience is gonna get bored watching set changes,” Mark said, pointing out the obvious.
But he didn’t have a better idea, either. We hemmed and hawed over the phone for half an hour, trying one idea, then another. They were all lame. Then the same stroke of genius hit us both and we spoke it at the same time:
It was perfect.
I hated it.
I was devastated to lose my general store keeper. But the character had to go, because the kindly old man I’d written just wasn’t the roving peddler type. This was a real kick in the gut, but the logistics of our primitive stage demanded it.
But a peddler? Great. The image that came to mind was some sleazy character pushing off cheap wares on gullible buyers. Total opposite to my grandfatherly general store keeper.
And Then Came the Pedlar
I tried to make the peddler more tolerable. Maybe more comedic. The story took place in the old west, so I started writing a tall, lean cowboy wearing a ten-gallon hat and a duster that was full of pockets inside and out and overflowing with merchandise. He was kinda funny, but he didn’t get far before I had a lightning bolt of inspiration.
Something I wrote reminded me of a character in the movie Gulliver’s Travels. One of the Lilliputians, combing the seashore for “treasure,” was thrilled to find an old boot that matched one he’d found before. It was a piece of junk, but he was elated. It dawned on me that such a character would make a really funny peddler.
In honor of the Lilliputian, I renamed my peddler “the Pedlar” (British spelling) and gave him a Cockney accent. In addition to bestowing him with a passion for useless and broken merchandise, I made him as active as a puppy and had him engage with the audience—actually walking through the aisles and trying to trade with them. I had a blast writing his part, and when I sent the new version to Mark—
“This is fine, Dani. Thanks.” With a big smile in his voice.
Mark loved the role so much he couldn’t resist taking it himself. He said his Cockney was rusty, so he used his stand-by Irish, which was all the same to me. The audience was in stitches as he tried to trade for one woman’s “spectacles” and a child’s box of animal crackers. He was just as good with the characters on stage, the chemistry perfect. The hyper-active Pedlar contrasted with the stoic marshal and struck sparks (never truly meant) with the marshal’s hot-tempered deputy. He was a hit.
And beyond that, he earned a really special place in my heart. Pedlar went from a character I despised to my favorite out of all my plays. I keep wanting to find a way to bring him to life again.
And the Moral of the Story Is …
So how, exactly, did I do it? How did I go from grinding my teeth at this new character to bursting with passion? Three simple steps.
First I acknowledged that I disliked the character I had to write. (You know, like at AA meetings.) “My name is Danielle and I hate the peddler.” It’s surprisingly important to stop and realize that you’re beating your head against a wall.
Then I asked one simple question: “What do I hate about this idea?”
For the peddler, it was the stereotype that was stuck in my head: a dishonest vagabond merchant with junk ware. I isolated that one problem—a character no one could love—and kept the rest (because I had to).
Finally, I looked at what I had left (still some sort of peddler) and asked the most important question: “What can I do to like this idea better?” In other words, good, old-fashioned brainstorming. (Or borrowing ideas from movies.) When I kept the junk ware and created a pedlar who was honestly convinced that it was treasure, and made him Cockney to boot (always fun), the Pedlar himself went from junk to treasure.
I’ve used this method ever since, and I’m so glad I stumbled across it!
Have you ever had to write something you hated? How’d you get through it? C’mon, fess up. Leave a comment below.