The Art of Building a Believable Character

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I was recently directing a community theater play and as I checked the set, I heard two experienced actors talking about their characters:

“My character married very young,” one of them said. “She became a homemaker and hasn’t worked outside the house.”

“My character works as a lunch lady. She doesn’t like it much, but she didn’t go to college,” the other said.

They continued on, outlining details about their characters that were not in the script. I asked how they came up with the backgrounds—this was a new play, never before performed, so there wasn’t anything for them to research.

“I wrote my character biography,” one of them told me. The other nodded. “I did too.”

I was surprised and pleased to see a technique I’ve taught my students in use to such good benefit. Both actors fully embodied their characters and knew them backward and forward.

One of the most important—and at times most difficult—parts of acting is developing a strong, believable character. For new actors, it can be a bewildering process. But there are many techniques that help actors lay the groundwork for a well-developed character.

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The first is the character biography. For beginning actors, I use a four-page form on which they can record nearly every aspect of their characters’ lives from appearance to personality to background and family. It asks them to think about things like how their characters respond in a crisis, what their biggest secrets are, and what philosophies they hold. When students take a look at it, their first question is, “How can I know all this?” I tell them that these are things they need to know to portray the characters and, while many of the details are in the script, a lot will have to be made up keeping with what is logical for what the playwright established

Many times, instead of filling out the form, actors will write a biography of the character. Initial details are uncovered through delving into the script. Then others are logically inferred. A biography should start with the character as a child. Where did he grow up? How many siblings did he have, and what was his position in birth order? What was the family’s socio-economic level? What was his earliest childhood memory? Then, transitioning from childhood through teenage years and into adulthood, what were important events in the character’s life?

All of this is only a start to building a realistic character. Following the biography, I have students look at their scripts and each action they do and line of dialogue they speak. I ask them to think of the character’s objective for each action and line and make notes in the margin. Another technique I use is annotating the script with what the character is thinking during each scene in which she appears. This internal monologue will not always be what the character says. Oftentimes, characters will be thinking thoughts that contradict what they say and the actors portraying the characters should know this.

An additional technique I recommend for actors who are having a hard time getting in touch with their characters is to find someone in real life who is like the character. I tell them to watch this person—how she walks, speaks, sits, gestures—then use these observations to create a picture of the character in their minds. This often helps to get a handle on the portrayal.

While these methods of character development are best suited to the play rehearsal process, they can also be used in auditions. When reading a scene in an audition, an actor needs to make choices. Stronger choices create stronger auditions. Read through the scene and base the character on someone you know. Or consider what the character might be thinking throughout the scene. Most importantly, decide what you think the character’s objective is for the scene. That can and should guide the way you perform.

There are many different ways to create a realistic character. Try a few different techniques to figure out what works best for you. Just remember to always consider the character’s background and objectives, and you’ll be well on your way to a powerful portrayal.

*This post was originally published on June 4, 2018. It has since been updated.

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and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Catherine LaMoreaux
Catherine LaMoreaux is the artistic director of Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center, a nonprofit community theater she co-founded with her daughter in 2014. Her degree is in theatre from the University of Michigan. She teaches high school acting and tutors in English.
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