Creating a Character

The goal of any actor is to be able to tell a story as a character, so the main task from first reading to final performance is to develop that character. The first and most important step in this process is perhaps the easiest: read! Read the script, read the text, read everything given to you for your part. You wouldn't believe how many actors go straight to performance without having even read their material. It is only by reading the material that you can learn the fundamentals about your character.

So what do you look for when reading your script? Pay attention to everything given to you about your character: his or her name, age, address, likes, dislikes, family, friends, political and religious viewpoints, favorite foods, places, upbringing— anything and everything about your character. Some of these qualities will be said directly by your character or another character; other attributes you'll be able to pick up through context clues in the script. However, the script will only grant you a small fraction of what you need to know about your character. So what do you do to find the other details? You make them up!

Yes, I'm not kidding. The better you know your character, the better acting you will produce. I know, you're probably asking yourself, "how?!" Well, the more facts and knowledge you have about your role, the easier it is to keep it consistent and realistic. Always having this information in mind will lead you to make acting choices that sync with your role. This means learning everything possible about whom you're playing. If the script doesn't tell you a certain detail, make it up! You should know how your character in and out, backwards and forwards, and the more details you create, the better off you will be. What does your character do for a living? How long has he or she been doing it? Is it fulfulling, or is there some other lifelong dream your character would like to pursue? What are your character's parents' names? Who was his or her best childhood friend? How would your character react if a large dog started licking his or her face? What does he or she do when asked to speak in public? Some of these may seem trivial, but they're very important!

A student actor portrays Mack Sennet in the musical Mack & Mabel
A student actor portrays Mack Sennet in the musical Mack & Mabel.

Ground Yourself

Although acting is all about being somebody else, a huge part of playing a character is by connecting the role to yourself. After all, everything you know about people, places, and experiences is based on your own living. So, what do you do if you're playing someone completely different from yourself, such as a British war general from the 1800s, for example? You've probably never been a war general, understandably. But maybe you've been in charge of a group of people through work or school and perhaps you've motivated them to accomplish something very important. You may have never been to Great Britain, and you probably have never lived in the 1800s. But maybe you've studied 19th century European history (and if you never have, now would be a perfect time to start). You can use all these connections to put yourself in the mind of the character that much more. This is a rather extreme example, but after recalling these past experiences, the daunting role is already more personal. If you ever find yourself playing a role that seems completely foreign, try to make small connections through your own experiences. Then, research everything else related to the role!

Do's and Don'ts When Creating a Character

DO:

  1. Read the script! Read your lines, other characters' lines, the stage directions, the prologue, epilogue, other works by the playwright (especially any others that your character might appear in!), everything!
  2. Research. Learn as much as possible about your character outside the text by researching the time period, the setting, the culture and politics of the area, and all the qualities one could ever know about one's self or another person. . . but for your character.
  3. Take time to do more than memorize! Many people think memorizing lines is the "meat and potatoes" of acting. It isn't! Memorizing is just the first step. If acting was like painting, the memorization would be merely mixing the colors. There's so much more to it. Rehearse many times, for different audiences. Play different objectives and look for new tactics to achieve those objectives every time you rehearse, if possible.
  4. Take risks! In real life, people don't just speak to one another monotone while sitting in a single chair or standing in a single spot indefinitely, so why should anyone do so onstage? Move around, be ridiculous! Honestly, be ridiculous onstage. You might feel odd doing so, but the effects will always be great! Acting mirrors life. If you play it safe, you'll most likely be "just okay" 100% of the time. But if you take a few risks, your work will always be more interesting, more dynamic, more effective, more memorable, and more inspiring. Plus, if something you try flops, you'll have many days of rehearsal to exchange it for something new.
  5. Listen! Listening is very important in theater; it's something actors don't do enough of. I don't mean for purely obvious reasons, either, like hearing your director give you instructions. While in character, actually listen to the words the other actors are saying. Don't just spit out your line simply because it comes next on the page. Actually take the time to listen, comprehend, process what was being said, and then speak when the words come. Not only will this keep you in the moment, your acting will seem infinitely more honest and natural if you do! Listening is supremely important.

DON'T:

  1. Don't just read lines with feeling. Contrary to popular belief, acting isn't "reciting lines with emotion." Don't do it in your performance. It's a start, maybe, in order to get a feel for the material. But merely reciting lines with emotion doesn't take into account anything else about the character, and if your only approach to the piece is reading the lines "with feeling," you'll likely come across as just that. Your goal is to create a character who is saying each line with a distinct thought process and purpose.
  2. Don't just go up and "wing it." This is an easy trap for an actor to fall into. Preparing a monologue or scene for performance takes a lot of dedication and hard work, and sometimes, there isn't enough time to fully commit to or even memorize the piece. However, winging it hardly ever works, even for an experienced actor. More often than not, the audience will be able to tell you aren't prepared.
  3. Don't "play emotions." In theater, there is no way to "play happy" or "play sad" or "play angry." Why not? People have infinitely different definitions of what it means to be happy, sad, or angry. Instead of playing an emotion, play the objective. Your character may have just won the lottery, and that's why he or she is happy. Maybe the family dog just passed away, and that's why your character is sad. Or perhaps you just discovered your significant other has been cheating on you, resulting in a whole slew of different negative emotions. See? Playing objectives can lead to the desired emotions, but just playing an emotion itself is impossible in theater.
  4. Don't employ stereotypes. Just because you were cast as the grandfather in the play, that doesn't mean you have to fake a limp, hunch your back, talk in a quavering voice and act feeble. There are plenty of grandfathers in the world who have none of those qualities. Similarly, being cast as the school shooter in a dramatic work doesn't automatically mean your character is antisocial, dark, cruel, or misunderstood. Instead of playing these traits as stereotypes, think about why your character may have developed those kinds of traits in his or her backstory. Keep what works and toss what doesn't.
  5. Don't just take. Give. Another tidbit that mirrors real life. A production, even when you're the lead, is not all about you. It's not all about any one person. A show belongs to everybody, and everybody deserves an opportunity to have their moment. When onstage, see what you can do to make your cast shine, and they'll do the same. Don't hog the spotlight. Being a diva, as it's called, is something people really disapprove of in theater. Be humble.