What William Shakespeare Can Teach Us About Characters

Wordsmith Essays is your top stop for the best essay editing service around. Our international team of editors will help you polish your work to a fine shine. Today, one of our editors talks about how we can learn how to write characters with the help of one William Shakespeare.

Last time, we discussed some of the more general lessons writers can learn from studying Shakespeare, but today I’d like to take a look at something a bit more specific that he did really well in his work: character introductions.

Let’s face it, it is difficult to introduce a character. One of the most difficult parts is that there is a constant balance between presenting an engaging character and establishing important character information that the audience needs to know. When a new character is introduced, many writers make the unfortunate mistake of introducing them with a ton of exposition, usually in the form of narration or dialogue, that will bore the audience to tears. For example:

A young man with dark hair and bright eyes walked into the room. His name was Oscar and he worked part-time at the car wash. The rest of the time he could be found in back alleys and smoke-filled bars, peddling and hustling. He was the ugliest sort of coward, a greedy man with a cruel face and a pocketful of empty smiles, but he had what Julia needed and she loved him for that.

This isn’t the worst way to introduce a character, but it’s very direct and not particularly engaging. The writer is telling us a lot of things about Oscar that we simply have to take for granted. There’s no room for ambiguity or audience interpretation—two things that represent the core of audience engagement.

Instead, let’s look at how Shakespeare introduces one of his characters. In Act I, Scene III of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we are introduced to Ophelia. She’s having a conversation with her brother. Her brother tells that her relationship with Hamlet is doomed because of his princely responsibilities and that she shouldn’t take his affection seriously. She accepts his advice, but playfully warns him not to be a hypocrite. Afterwards, she speaks with her father, Polonius, who wants to know what she was talking with Laertes about. She tells him, admitting to her relationship with Hamlet, and when he demands that she cut off contact with Hamlet, Ophelia obediently agrees to do exactly that without a word of protest.

This scene is fascinating for how well it introduces Ophelia’s character and the trick Shakespeare uses is stunning in its simplicity. All he does is have the character interact with two different people that hold similar perspectives about the central conflict the character faces. Both Laertes and Polonius tell her that Hamlet is not serious about their love—although they differ in how to handle the situation—and because of that we get to see two different sides of Ophelia. She is playful, witty, and honest with her brother, but with her father she is obedient, deferential, and coy. With only a handful of lines the audience is presented with a complex character with their own motivations, problems, and relationships, that are all recognized by the audience without being stated outright.

The great thing is that these technique can be broadly applied to any sort of character introduction. Simply identify the central conflict of a character and introduce them in a scene where two characters give them the same advice about the conflict, but have them react differently to each character. The different ways they interact engages the audience by demanding that they interpret the possible reasons for the differences in character interaction and tells them a great deal about the thing that is most important to the character for the purposes of the story. It is a very simple technique, but trust me, if you can pull it off properly you’ll look like a genius.

Alas, that’s all for our look at the lessons we can take from William Shakespeare. We’ll return to his plays and poetry another time, but next time we’ll look at something a bit more mechanical: writing a decent introduction for an essay. Until then, stay safe and keep writing!

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