Writing for Vaudeville
by Brett Page

Presented by

Public Domain Books

Chapter XV - The Characters in the Playlet

In this chapter the single word “character” must, of necessity, do duty to express three different things. First, by “characters," as used in the title, I mean what the programs sometimes more clearly express by the words “persons of the play.” Second, in the singular, it must connote what we all feel when we use the word in everyday life, as “he is a man of–good or bad–character." And third, and also in the singular, I would also have it connote, in the argot of the stage, “a character actor,” meaning one who presents a distinct type–as, say, a German character, or a French character. It is because of the suggestive advantage of having one word to express these various things that the single term “characters” is used as the title of this chapter. But, that there may be no possible confusion, I shall segregate the different meanings sharply.


In discussing how a playwright gets an idea, you will recall, we found that there are two chief ways of fashioning the playlet: First, a plot may be fitted with characters; second, characters may be fitted with a plot. In other words, the plot may be made most prominent, or the characters may be made to stand out above the story. You will also remember we found that the stage–the vaudeville quite as much as the legitimate–is “character-ridden," that is, an actor who has made a pronounced success in the delineation of one character type forever afterward wants another play or playlet “just like the last, but with a different plot,” so that he can go right on playing the same old character. This we saw has in some cases resulted in the story being considered merely as a vehicle for a personality, often to the detriment of the playlet. Naturally, this leads us to inquire: is there not some just balance between characters and plot which should be preserved?

Were we considering merely dramatic theory, we would be perfectly right in saying that no play should be divisible into plot and characters, but that story and characters should be so closely twinned that one would be unthinkable without the other. As Brander Matthews says, “In every really important play the characters make the plot, and the story is what it is merely because the characters are what they are.” An exceptionally fine vaudeville example–one only, it is agreeable to note, out of many that might be quoted from vaudeville’s past and present–that has but two persons in the playlet is Will Cressy’s “The Village Lawyer.” One is a penniless old lawyer who has been saving for years to buy a clarionet. A woman comes in quest of a divorce. When he has listened to her story he asks twenty dollars advance fee. Then he persuades her to go back home–and hands the money back. There is a splendid climax. The old lawyer stands in the doorway of his shabby office looking out into the night. “Well,” he sighs, “maybe I couldn’t play the darned thing anyway!” If the lawyer had not been just what he was there would have been no playlet. But vital as the indissoluble union of plot and characters is in theory, we are not discussing theory; we are investigating practice, and practice from the beginner’s standpoint, therefore let us approach the answer to our question in this way:

When you were a child clamoring for “a story” you did not care a snap of your fingers about anything except “Once upon a time there was a little boy–or a giant–or a dragon,” who did something. You didn’t care what the character was, but whatever it was, it had to do something, to be doing something all of the time. Even when you grew to youth and were on entertainment bent, you cared not so much what the characters in a story were, just so long as they kept on doing something–preferably “great” deeds, such as capturing a city or scuttling a ship or falling in love. It was only a little later that you came to find enjoyment in reading a book or seeing a play in which the chief interest came from some person who had admirable qualities or was an odd sort of person who talked in an odd sort of way. Was it George Cohan who said “a vaudeville audience is of the mental age of a nine-year-old child”?

Theoretically and, of course, practically too, when it is possible, the characters of a playlet should be as interesting as the plot. Each should vitally depend upon the other. But, if you must choose whether to sacrifice plot-interest or character-interest, save the interest of plot every time. As Aristotle says, “the action is the first and most important thing, the characters only secondary.”

How a playwright begins to construct a play, whether he fits a plot with characters, or fits characters with a plot, does not matter. What matters is how he ends. If the story and the characters blend perfectly the result is an example of the highest art, but characters alone will never make a stage story–the playlet writer must end with plot. Story is for what the stage is made. Plot is the life blood of the playlet. To vivify cold dramatic incidents is the province of playlet characters.


While it is true that, no matter with what method he begins, a playwright may end by having a successful playlet, the clearer way to understanding is for us to suppose that you have your plot and are striving to fit it with live people–therefore I shall assume that such is the case. For if the reverse were the case and the characters were all ready to fit with a plot, the question would be primarily not of characters but of plot.

1. The Number of Persons

How many people shall I have in my playlet? ought to be one of the very first questions the writer asks, for enough has been said in the earlier chapters, it would seem, to establish the fact that vaudeville is first of all a commercial pursuit and after that an artistic profession. While there can be no hard and fast rule as to the number of persons there may be in a playlet, business economy dictates that there shall be no more than the action of the playlet positively demands. But before I say a short word about this general “rule,” permit me to state another that comes fast upon its heels: A really big playlet–big in theme, in grip of action, and in artistic effect–may have even thrice the number of characters a “little” playlet may possess. Merit determines the number.

Let us find the reasons for these two general statements in this way:

In “The Lollard” there are four persons, while in “The System “ there are thirteen speaking parts and a number of “supers.” Would it then be correct to suppose that “The System” is a “bigger" playlet than “The Lollard”? It would not be safe to assume any such judgment, for the circuit that booked “The System” may have been in need of a playlet using a large number of persons to make what is known as a “flash,” therefore the booking manager may have given orders that this playlet be built to make that flash, and the total return to the producer might not have been any greater proportionally than the return to the producer of the numerically smaller “The Lollard.” Therefore of two playlets whose total effects are equal, the one having the lesser number of persons is the better producing gamble, and for this reason is more likely to be accepted when offered for sale.

If you will constantly bear in mind that you are telling a story of action and not of character, you will find very little difficulty in reducing the number of players from what you first supposed absolutely necessary. As just one suggestion: If your whole playlet hangs on an important message to be delivered, the property man, dressed as a messenger boy, may hand in the message without a word. I have chosen this one monotonously often-seen example because it is suggestive of the crux of the problem–the final force of a playlet is affected little by what the character says when he delivers a vital message. All that matters is the message itself. The one thing to remember in reducing the number of characters to the lowest possible number is–plot.

Four Persons the Average. While there are playlets ranging in number of characters from the two-person “The Village Lawyer," through “The Lollard’s” four, to “The System’s” thirteen speaking parts, and even more in rare instances, the average vaudeville playlet employs four people. But it is a fact of importance to note that a three-person playlet can be sold more easily–I am assuming an equal standard of merit–than a four-person playlet. And, by the same law of demand, a two-person playlet wins a quicker market than a three-person playlet. The reason for this average has its rise in the demands of the dramatic, and not merely in economy. The very nature of the playlet makes it the more difficult to achieve dramatic effect the more the number of characters is reduced. But while four persons are perfectly permissible in a playlet designed for vaudeville’s commercial stage, the beginner would do well to make absolutely sure that he has reduced his characters to their lowest number before he markets his playlet, and, if possible, make a three-person or a two-person offering.

2. Selecting the Characters

There would seem to be little need, in this day of wide curiosity about all the forms of writing and those of playwriting in particular, to warn the beginner against straying far afield in search of characters whom he will not understand even when he finds them. Yet this is precisely the fault that makes failures of many otherwise good playlets. The whole art of selecting interesting characters may be summed up in one sentence–choose those that you know. The most interesting characters in the world are rubbing elbows with you every day.

Willard Mack–who developed into a successful legitimate playwright from vaudeville, and is best known, perhaps, for the expansion of his vaudeville act, “Kick in,” into the long play of the same name–has this to say on the subject: “I say to the ambitious playwright, take the types you are familiar with. Why go to the Northwest, to New Orleans in the 40’s, to the court of Louis XIV, for characters? The milkman who comes to your door in the morning, the motorman on the passing street car, the taxi driver, all have their human-interest stories. Anyone of them would make a drama. I never attempt to write anything that has not suggested itself from something in real life. I must know it has existed.” [1]

[1] Willard Mack on the “Vaudeville Playlet,” The New York Dramatic Mirror, March 3, 1915.

Precisely as it is impossible to tell anyone how to grasp the dramatic and transplant it into a playlet, is it impossible to show how to seize on character and transplant it to the stage. Only remember that interesting characters are all about you, and you will have little difficulty–if you have, as the French say, the “flare.”


It would seem that a playwright who has his plot all thought out would experience little difficulty in fitting the characters of a playlet into their waiting niches; it is easy, true enough–if his plot is perfectly dovetailed and motivated as to character. By this I mean, that in even a playlet in which plot rides the characters, driving them at its will to attain its end, logic must be used. And it certainly would not be logical to make your characters do anything which such persons would not do in real life. As there must be unity in plot, so must there be unity in character.

The persons in a playlet are not merely puppets, even if plot is made to predominate. They are–let us hope–live persons. I do not mean that you have transplanted living people to the stage, but that you have taken the elements of character that you require out of life and have combined these into a consistent whole to form characters necessary to your playlet. Therefore, you must be careful to make each character uniform throughout. You must not demand of any character anything you have not laid down in tbe premises of your problem–which presupposes that each character possesses certain definite and logical characteristics which make the plot what it is.

Bearing this single requirement firmly in mind, you must so motivate your plot that everything which occurs to a character rises out of that character’s personality; you must make the crisis the outward evidence of his inner being and the change which comes through the climax the result of inner change. This was considered in the chapters on the dramatic and on plot construction and expressed when I said: It is the meaning hidden in the events that makes the dramatic. It is this inner meaning that lies in the soul of the character himself which marks the change in his own character and his own outward life.


How a playwright delineates character in the persons of his playlet, is at once the easiest thing to explain and the most difficult for which to lay down helpful methods, for while the novelist and the short-story writer have three ways of telling their readers what manner of man it is in whom he asks interest, the dramatist has but two.

1. Methods of Characterization

First, a playwright may build up a characterization by having one character tell another what sort of a person the third is. Second, he may make the character show by his own speech and actions what he is. This latter is the dramatic way, and peculiarly the playlet way.

As the first method is perfectly plain in itself, I shall dismiss it with the suggestive warning that even this essentially undramatic method must partake of the dramatic to be most effective: to get the most out of one character’s describing a second to a third, the reason for the disclosure must be bone-and-brawn a part of the action.

The two elements of the dramatic method are: First, the character may disclose his inner being by his own words, and second, by his actions.

The first is so intimately connected with the succeeding chapter on dialogue that I shall postpone its consideration until then and discuss here the disclosure of character through action.

When you meet a man whom you have never met before, you carry away with you a somewhat complete impression. Even though he has spoken but a word or two, his appearance first of all, the cut of his clothes, his human twinkle, the way he lights his cigar, the courteous way in which he gives precedence to another, or his rough way of “butting into” a conversation, all combine to give him a personality distinct from every other man’s. What he does not disclose of himself by actions, you read into his personality yourself. “First impressions are the strongest,” is a common saying–we make them strong by reading character on sight, by jumping at conclusions. Man does not need to have a whole life laid before him to form a judgment. Little things are what drive character impressions home.

It is this human trait of which the playwright makes use in the delineation of character. The playlet writer has even less time than the legitimate dramatist to stamp character. He must seize on the essentials, and with a few broad strokes make the character live as distinct from all other men.

For much of his characterization–aside from that absolutely inherent in the plot–the playlet writer depends upon the actor. By the use of costumes and of make-up, the age and station in life, even the business by which a character earns his daily bread, are made clear at a glance. And by the trick of a twitching mouth, a trembling hand, or a cunningly humble glance, the inner being is laid bare, with the help of a few vital words which are made to do duty to advance the story as well.

In a word, the playwright and the actor work in partnership, with broad strokes, relying upon the eager imagination of the audience to amplify the tiny sketch into a well-rounded, full personality. This is the method simply stated. It does not admit of the laying down of precepts.

2. The Choice of Names

In the old days of vaudeville the persons of a playlet were often named to fit their most prominent characteristic; for instance, a sneaky fellow would be named Sam Sly, and a pretty girl Madge Dimples. But with the change in fashion in the long play, the playlet has relegated this symbolical method of naming characters to burlesque and the lurid types of melodrama, and even there it is going out of fashion.

Today, names are carefully chosen to seem as life-like as do the characters themselves. Instead of trying to express characteristics by a name, the very opposite effect is sought, except when the character would in real life have a “monicker,” or the naming of the character in the old way would serve to relate the act more closely to its form and awaken pleasing reminiscences. [1] The method today is to select a name that shall fit a character in a general way and yet be so unobtrusive that it will not be remarked.

[1] See The System and My Old Kentucky Home, in the Appendix.

Simple names are always the best. The shorter they are the better–usually nicknames, if true to life and the character, have a “homey” sort of sound that is worth securing. Bill, and Jack, and Madge, and Flo, or anyone of a hundred others, sound less formidable than William, and James, and Margaret, and Florence. Names that are long and “romantic” are usually amusing; merely listen to Algernon, Hortense, and Reginald Montmorency, and you have to smile–and not always with pleasure.

But for a name to be simple or short or unromantic does not solve the problem for all cases. A long “romantic” name might be the very best one you could choose for a certain character. [1] The name you should select depends on what effect you wish to secure. No one can tell you just what name to choose for a character you alone have in mind.

[1] See The Villain Still Pursued Her in the Appendix.

But do not make the mistake of pondering too long over the naming of your characters. It is not the name that counts, it is the character himself, and behind it all the action that has brought the character into being–your gripping plot.

And now, let us sum up this brief discussion of characters and characterization before we pass on to a consideration of dialogue. Because of time-restriction, a playlet must depend for interest upon plot rather than upon character. The average number of persons in a playlet is four. Interesting characters are to be found everywhere, and the playlet writer can delineate those he rubs elbows with better than those he does not know well and therefore cannot fully understand. The same unity demanded of a plot is required of a character–characters must be consistent. Characterization is achieved by the dramatic method of letting actions speak for themselves, is done in broad strokes growing out of the plot itself, and is conveyed in close partnership with the actor by working on the minds of the audience who take a meagre first impression and instantly build it up into a full portrait.


Foreword  •  Introduction  •  Chapter I - The Why of the Vaudeville Act  •  Chapter II - Should You Try to Write For Vaudeville?  •  Chapter III - The Vaudeville Stage and Its Dimensions  •  Chapter IV - The Scenery Commonly Found in Vaudeville Theatres  •  Chapter V - The Nature of the Monologue  •  Chapter VI - Writing the Monologue  •  Chapter VII - The Vaudeville Two-Act  •  Chapter VIII - The Structural Elements of Two-Act Material  •  Chapter IX - Putting the Two-Act on Paper  •  Chapter X - The Playlet as a Unique Dramatic Form  •  Chapter XI - Kinds of Playlet  •  Chapter XII - How Playlets are Germinated  •  Chapter XIII - The Dramatic–The Vital Element of Plot  •  Chapter XIV - The Structural Elements of Plot  •  Chapter XV - The Characters in the Playlet  •  Chapter XVI - Dialogue in the Playlet  •  Chapter XVII - “Business” in the Playlet  •  Chapter XVIII - Writing the Playlet  •  Chapter XIX - The Elements of a Successful One-Act Musical Comedy

[Buy at Amazon]
Writing for Vaudeville
By Brett Page
At Amazon