Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich: Bring the Drama: Using Stage/Screen Techniques for Full-Bodied Characters

guysmileyEDITWhen I was in 7th grade, my parents sent me to drama class because I was one of those shy-at-school kids whose teachers were always asking to speak UP. As a reader of Noel Streatfeild’s SHOES books, a copious watcher of all sorts of MGM musicals, and along with my best friends, producer/director/star of various homemade “shows” for our parents, I was also one of those shy kids who hoped to be “discovered”.

I was adolescently mortified and terrible at acting for a long time.  Then I got a little better, partly out of pride, partly because it was so much fun, and partly because I came to understand the importance of taking risks as a performer, of getting inside — not so much to ‘lose myself’, but to connect — with fellow performers, with the audience, with myself. I also began writing more monologues and plays, and learned to pay attention to the ways that dialogue and movement could be just as expressive as description or narrative. Years later, when a children’s author and mentor spoke of the benefit of acting classes for writers, I was all YES.

Character development is at the heart of my writing, and I may start with specific, identifying details: physical characteristics, making lists of goals, favourites, dislikes, etc. I spend a lot of time thinking about and living with my characters before I start writing “the story.” (Maybe too much time, actually. I should probably get on with it a bit sooner than I do.)  I go into intangibles and alternate circumstances: what if X happened, how would my character react? What if this thing that just happened to me happened to X–how would they have responded differently? When I’m out in public and see or overhear something mundane or extraordinary, I wonder — Ooh, how would my character handle that? Even if this stuff doesn’t make it into the actual story, it gives me a deeper understanding of my characters. I think that even in the more plot-based stories, full-bodied, vivid characterization makes a story memorable, richer, and real. Employing stage and screen techniques and strategies can enhance personality and voice, and I’d like to share a few of the tips and techniques I’ve learned over the years, and that I think will work well with some of the things already discussed here in Kidlit Summer School.


The first is the well-known character interview technique, taken a bit further. Really do the interview. Give the questions to a trusted friend or critique partner who will be the Oprah and you take on the role of your character.  And go beyond the “What’s your favourite colour, what does your room look like, etc.” questions, and tackle questions like

Tell me about the moment you knew that this (story “problem”, character need, etc.) was what you had to do?

What do you love about yourself?

What do you wish you could change about yourself?

What’s the one thing you wish you could change in your life?

What are you afraid of?

Where do you love to be?

Describe the person/living thing/object you’re closest to in your family. What do you do together? Tell me about your biggest fight.

Why did you and your (enemy/nemesis/antagonist. etc.) start growing apart?  What do you wish they would do to repair the relationship?

You get the idea. You can record this interview, and later take note of the gestures, postures, vocal inflections, etc. that you use when you are in character, and think about why.


Sometimes we can confuse characteristics with the development of full-bodied characters. You know, you make one of those lists and decide that your character has a facial tic, a messy room, and loves cheese. That’s great, but who is she? Let’s think in terms of stage and screen, and break that down a little more. When does that tic become pronounced? What is she doing?  Where is she? Who is she with? How does she try to ignore/disguise/emphasize it?  What do others say or do about it — or how do they interACT? Try writing these scenes using a screenplay or play format.  Writing this way can help you think more about your characters’ dialogue and  physicality.

I do the same thing with students in a character+emotion exercise. I also love to have students do a mix and match exercise where we take their characters and throw out different emotions — “Write a scene where she’s really angry!” “Frustrated!” “Ecstatic!”  Then we throw in different settings and it can get really crazy — “She’s frustrated in the middle of the ocean!” Again, write a film or stage script — then revise after you’ve tried to act it out.  Back to that messy room. Pretend you’re a camera operator panning across it and ZOOM IN. What gets a close-up? If you were shooting a flashback scene, how did that room get messy?

You can find an example of the format here:  http://www.oscars.org/awards/nicholl/scriptsample.pdf

The classic SCREENPLAY by Syd Field is also a great primer for this type of writing exercise.


I live in a city where there are plenty of opportunities for free theater, and I try to take advantage of that, especially during the summer. Whenever you see a play or watch a film or show, spend a little time “reading like a writer” and look at the things that performers do to bring their characters to life, through words, gestures, facial expressions – the way the performers show without telling, and take notes. Take special note of the “extras” or performers with smaller roles and the things they do to convey emotion, etc.


And finally, get on stage yourself! Literally take a walk in a character’s shoes. Take an acting class, join a community theatre group, or just create one with other writers yourself — how much fun could that be? This is one time that “going through the motions” can be a wonderful thing.

Additional Resources:

RESPECT FOR ACTING, by Uta Hagen. The first few chapters are very helpful, particularly on the ideas of identification, substitution, and emotional memory.

Alexandra Sokoloff’s blog and “Screenwriting Tricks for Authors”, which is chock-full of helpful info, including posts like these:

What Makes a Great Protagonist (Case Study)

Creating Character — The Protagonist

Matt Bird’s Cockeyed Caravan, a mostly film blog; you can look at all of the posts on creating compelling characters:

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich is often asked about her name; she is the daughter of a Nigerian father and a Jamaican mother, and married to a man of Croatian descent. She’s the author of 8th GRADE SUPERZERO (Scholastic, 2010) and contributed to OPEN MIC: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices (Candlewick, 2013), BREAK THESE RULES: 35 YA Authors on Speaking Up, Standing Out, and Being Yourself (Chicago Review Press, 2013), and IMAGINE IT BETTER: Visions of What School Might Be (Heinemann, 2014), along with other works. She has also worked as a literacy educator, youth group leader, educational consultant, publicist, and freelance writer, and is a member of PEN, SCBWI, and on the Advisory Board of Epic Change. Olugbemisola lives with her family in New York, where she loves to cook, bake, sew, knit, and make a mess with just about any craft form. Please visit her Web site at http://www.olugbemisolabooks.com.

Olugbemisola is giving away a first chapter critique! To be eligible to win, just comment on this post before the end of #KidlitSummerSchool.

And check out the Exercise Book for Gbemi’s tips on interviewing techniques!

Not registered for Kidlit Summer School yet? No worries! Click here to REGISTER.






147 comments on “Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich: Bring the Drama: Using Stage/Screen Techniques for Full-Bodied Characters

  1. Poppy Wrote says:

    So much great info here!


  2. Doris Stone says:

    There was a lot of great information here Olugbemisola. Thanks so much for inspiring me to dig deeper into my character’s life.


  3. I love how you go past the basic character interview! Thanks so much for all the tips!


  4. What a wonderful post, rich with techniques to use and ideas to think about! Thank you!


  5. Olugbemisola,
    It is terrific how you took your love of drama and applied its techniques to enrich your writing. I plan to read and reread this one. Thanks for the suggested activities.


  6. Sandee Abern says:

    I love the idea of “going through the motions” and really getting into the character as a whole, not just characteristic parts. Thank you for all of these wonderful ideas.


  7. Meg Miller says:

    Wonderful post! I was/am a similar personality, I did take theater in high school, but then dropped it when we moved. Who knows, I might have come to love it! 😀 Thanks for the ideas!


  8. I like your “read like a writer” idea. I never thought of going to the theater with this purpose in mind.


  9. Jenifer McNamara says:

    Interesting post. That’s what I try to do whenever I watch movies, children’s movies too.


  10. Very inspiring! Thank you!


  11. goaudreyrich says:

    Thank you for providing tools for us to learn who are characters are and how they would react. I think the Let’s put on a Show is a great idea along with the author being interviewed as the character.

    Thanks for being part of Kidlit Summer.


  12. Wow, these lessons keep getting better. I’ve never looked this deeply into my characters before.


  13. Eisen says:

    Thank you for your very helpful questions and techniques to learn more about our characters! Great post 🙂


  14. Thank you so much! The first time I realized how important it was to really get to know my character was in Emma Walton Hamilton’s Just Write 4 Kids course…write a one or two page biography of my mc? Why, I wondered. Then I encountered the same advice in Susanna Hill’s Making Picture Book Magic Class. And it struck me – how could I write intelligently about someone I didn’t even know? Your post will help me look for other ways to develop each character. 🙂


  15. kpbock says:

    Wonderful ideas! If my husband doesn’t already think I’m crazy, he surely will when he finds me acting like my character in the middle of the living room!


  16. So much to follow up on, and I’ll enjoy doing it. Thank you.


  17. lisakwillard says:

    Thank you for this great post! Planning to try writing scenes with the character + emotion exercise.


  18. Brook Gideon says:

    Honestly, some of this makes me a little uneasy and nervous, which means I should try them. Thank you for the great tips and further spots of interest. ( I will always pick up a book on the matter!)


  19. WOW! What an info-packed post! Thank you for all your wonderful tips.


  20. Rita says:

    Thanks… I like the tip about paying attention to the “smaller roles”… that adds the extra little believable details.


  21. jmvandenberg says:

    I realized that my character isn’t really afraid of anything. I should change that. All the adults around him are afraid of things and he doesn’t understand their superstitious fears. But maybe I need to give him something that makes him afraid. Actually, now that I think about it, he is wary of the world outside his town. I could make more of that. Great post. Lots of ideas to ponder.


  22. Great information… I love drama and I am afraid of it! A great combination that tells me I need to do more of it. Thank you for your ideas and exercises, I think that are going to be super helpful for me!


  23. Olugbemisola, thank you for the informative post. I’ve downloaded the sample script sample and I will refer to it again and again. And thanks for the additional links. 🙂


  24. Deborah Allmand says:

    Acting out a scene seems like it will be very beneficial. I also think it would be beneficial to have a scene antagonist vs protagonist. Thanks for lecture. Loved it!!!


  25. Amazing post – thank you so much!


  26. Melanie Ellsworth says:

    Wow – there’s so much info to absorb here, Olugbemisola. I love the idea of actually conducting the character interview out loud as if you were the character; it really forces you to take the character to a deeper level. And I’m going to start paying more conscious attention, not just in the theater (which I wish I had an opportunity to attend more often), but also in movies, to the way the actors use gestures and expressions to show you something about their characters.


  27. Keila says:

    Lots to digest. Thank you for sharing Olugbemisola. You certainly gave me many new ways to get to know the characters I’ve created. I need to get busy!


  28. Marge Gower says:

    Great post, interview questions, and resources. Interesting technique of thinking of the story as a play and having your characters act out your story. Thank your for your post and links.


  29. yetteejo says:

    It almost feels like creating a new personality within me. When I become the character i can tell her story. You have made me think!


  30. donnacangelosi says:

    Great information, Olugbemisola! I love the idea of thinking of the story as a play.


  31. This is a great article Gbemi. Thanks for the tips. I am going to try some of them on my next characters.


  32. Yvonne Mes says:

    Thanks for putting into words, what I had been feeling for a while. I have done my fair share of theatrics at local theaters and it was great to see how those experiences can help in building believable characters.


  33. Renee says:

    Thanks for sharing so many riches!


  34. You are amazing Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich! Thank you for sharing your perspective for building a character through theater and acting. ~Suzy Leopold


  35. Amanda says:

    What a fantastic post! Thank you.


  36. Amy Benoit says:

    HA! Just took your advice on reading like a writer and watching the HALLMARK channel with new eyes. This is a great exercise and fabulous advice. I think my writing turned a new corner.


  37. bucherwurm65 says:

    This post is dense with excellent advice! Thank you for sharing your expertise and tips!


  38. jkirsch118 says:

    As someone who went to grad school for theater, I can really see the merit in this. Great ideas. Thanks so much.


  39. Nat says:

    Another great post on delving into your characters– Thanks!!


  40. Wow what great advice. I love the idea of having someone else ask you questions then responding as your character–it really puts you in their head. Thanks!


  41. Kate Goka says:

    I’m getting a great boost from this whole series, but love writing/ acting connection you spell out here. It’s great to think that writing doesn’t have to be totally in my head– that I can get some ideas by putting myself in the shoes of some of my characters. Thank you!


  42. Wonderful post and helpful references to other materials to learn more! Love your link between acting and writing to help with showing rather than telling. Thank you!


  43. Val M says:

    What terrific detail about how to really dig into a character, actually becoming that character through role-play to get truly into them. Thank you, Olugbemisola.


  44. Wonderful post thank you!


  45. Christine says:

    I really enjoyed reading your post! I love theatre, but prefer either back-stage or the audience–on stage is a terrifying place to be. 🙂 Thanks so much for the tips, ideas, and all the resources.


  46. winemama says:

    bring the drama! good post! makes me think of my school theatre days


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