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