8 Essential Character Traits Every Actor Should Master

Article Image
Photo Source: Apple TV+/Nicola Dove/Helen Sloan/HBO/Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

If you were asked to describe Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” you’d likely say that he’s principled, fair, and ethical. Alternatively, you might call Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) from “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” sleazy, unscrupulous, and manipulative. Although these characters are both lawyers, they’re wildly different due to their disparate character traits—the building blocks of personalities that shape how characters think, feel, and behave. In this guide, we’ll spotlight some character traits, explore examples from various media, and uncover how to identify and embody them in performances.

What are character traits?

Character traits serve as the DNA of characters, influencing their thoughts, actions, and relationships. They encompass a wide spectrum of attributes, including physical, emotional, and moral qualities. From the boldness of a hero to the cunning of a villain, these traits add depth and complexity to portrayals. Understanding these traits is essential for actors to create authentic characters, deliver compelling performances, and engage and captivate viewers.

Examples of character traits

Below are some of the most common character traits, a few actors who helped bring them to life, and advice on portraying them in your own work.

1. Courageous: Brave, determined, and willing to sacrifice themselves to help others.

  • Examples: Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) from “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) from the “Harry Potter” franchise, and Captain America (Chris Evans) from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
  • How to portray: Tap your own experience of facing fears. Infuse your performance with determination, resilience, and a willingness to confront challenges head-on.

2. Manipulative: Uses deceitful tactics such as lying, gaslighting, and weaponizing guilt to control those around them.

  • Examples: Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) from “Game of Thrones,” Iago (Kenneth Branagh) from “Othello,” and Regina George (Rachel McAdams) from “Mean Girls.”
  • How to portray: Study the character’s motivations and manipulative tactics. Use subtle body language, tone shifts, and persuasive speech patterns to convey their calculated nature.

3. Compassionate: Kind and empathetic; strives to help others when they’re hurting.

  • Examples: Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) from “Forrest Gump,” Joy (Amy Poehler) from “Inside Out,” and Charlie (Logan Lerman) from “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”
  • How to portray: Connect with the character’s empathy and kindness. Show warmth in your gestures, actively listen to others, and convey genuine concern for their well-being.

4. Ambitious: Driven to succeed at their goals and improve their station in life. 

  • Examples: Chris Gardner (Will Smith) from “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) from “Macbeth,” and Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) from “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
  • How to portray: Explore the character’s relentless drive and hunger for success. Display confidence, determination, and a willingness to push boundaries to achieve their goals.

5. Loyal: Faithful, trustworthy, and dependable, making them a source of support for their loved ones.

  • Examples: Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) from “The Lord of the Rings,” Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) from “Harry Potter,” and Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio) from “Daredevil.”
  • How to portray: Understand the character’s allegiances and the reasons behind their loyalty. Explore their history with other characters and the sacrifices they are willing to make for those they care about. Show unwavering dedication and protectiveness towards their allies, conveying a sense of reliability that anchors their relationships.

6. Narcissistic: Self-centered, overly entitled, and arrogant, placing their own wants above those of people around them. 

  • Examples: Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) from “American Psycho,” Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) from “Gone with the Wind,” and Gaston (Luke Evans) from “Beauty and the Beast.”
  • How to portray: Dive into the character’s inflated sense of self-importance and entitlement. Explore their need for admiration and validation, as well as their lack of empathy for others. Use grandiose gestures, self-centered language, and a commanding presence to convey their narcissistic tendencies, leaving the audience both fascinated and repelled by their egotistical nature.

7. Insecure: Question themselves and their role in the world, seeking reassurance from others. They may be paranoid and controlling due to constant self-doubt.

  • Examples: Bridget Jones (Renée Zellweger) from “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) from “Hamlet,” and Nate Shelley (Nick Mohammed) from “Ted Lasso.”
  • How to portray: Delve into the character’s fears, doubts, and anxieties. Explore the underlying reasons behind their insecurity, such as past traumas or societal pressures. Use hesitant body language, self-deprecating speech patterns, and a vulnerable demeanor to convey their inner turmoil, allowing the audience to empathize with their struggles and vulnerabilities.

8. Charismatic: Present, enthusiastic, and confident, easily charming other characters (and the audience!) and leaving them feeling fantastic.

  • Examples: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and James Bond (Daniel Craig) from the James Bond franchise.
  • How to portray: Explore the character’s magnetic charm and irresistible allure. Delve into their confident demeanor, captivating charisma, and ability to command attention. Use confident body language, charismatic speech patterns, and a charming smile to convey their undeniable presence, leaving the audience captivated by their charisma and charm.

How to identify and embody character traits

1. Research the trait. Watch iconic portrayals of the character trait, keeping an eye out for body language, microexpressions, and dialogue choices.

2. Analyze the script. Dive deep into the script to uncover clues about your character’s traits. Pay attention to the meaning behind their words and actions, and explore their relationships with other characters.

3. Use sense memory and emotional recall. Employ sense memory techniques to tap your own emotions and experiences that resonate with the character’s traits. This will help you authentically embody their persona onstage or onscreen.

4. Explore. Experiment with your physicality and vocal nuances to reflect the character’s traits. Adjust your posture, gestures, and tone of voice to align with their personality and demeanor.

5. Keep practicing. To create compelling and multidimensional characters, you need to put in the work. Continue striving to understand, identify, and embody traits to breathe life into your characters and captivate audiences with the richness of human behavior onstage and onscreen. 

 

Author Headshot
Maggie Bera
Maggie Bera is a NYC-based actor with a BFA in musical theater from Texas State University. Off-Broadway: “Powerline Road” (BwayWorld Award Winner—Best Performer Off-Broadway), “The Baker’s Wife,” and “Helen on 86th Street.” Regional credits include Engeman Theater, TUTS Houston, Fireside Theatre, and Connecticut Rep. TV: Showtime’s “The Big C” with Laura Linney. Maggie is also the founder of Actor Aesthetic, an actor lifestyle blog, podcast, and online learning community. Proud member of Actor’s Equity and SAG-AFTRA.
See full bio and articles here!

More From Backstage Guides

Recommended

More From Actors + Performers

Now Trending