The #1 Way to Quickly Create a Complex Character

One of the problems with the classic actor’s process is that it robs the actor of the chance to create complex dramatic characters on camera. The simple reason is that the classic actor’s process encourages the actor to identify the things that he or she has in common with the character, and use those as the basis for creating that character. The result is one-dimensional, because the actor is creating character traits that he or she already possesses. When creating for camera, it’s important to remember that the camera operates on aesthetic principles, and a universal aesthetic principle is that contrast is a key component to creating something vivid, something moving, something memorable.

With contrast in mind consider this: Next time you’re approaching a scene, instead of asking yourself what you have in common with your character, start by making up a short list of your own traits and qualities. Then, think of a character that is not at all like you, and play the sensibilities of that character while you’re reading the scene. Since you always bring yourself into the room, your qualities are already a part of what you’re creating, so by adding the sensibilities of a character very much unlike you, you will be creating two sides to a character and everything in between, and you will be quickly creating a complex character for the camera.

Here’s an example: Let’s say you’re an female actor in your 20s. You’re “girl next door” pretty. Come from a good home, decent family. Well-educated. In essence, we have just written the character breakdown of you. If you, our “Female Actor in Her 20s,” approaches a character you’re playing by identifying what you have in common with the character, you will end up listing the very same qualities we described in our character breakdown of you. It’s redundant. It’s one-dimensional. It’s flat.

If you, our “Female Actor in Her 20s” plays the sensibilities of a tough, hardscrabble, coal miner’s daughter, the character will still be based on you, but will be full of emotional complexity. If you play the sensibilities of a shy, insecure wallflower from an abusive home, the contrast will open up the emotional complexity of your soul, and the result on camera will be vivid, moving, memorable.

The most important thing to remember is that you are using the sensibility of the character you’re adding. Don’t use accents, dialects, etc. It’s not the character’s voice or speech you’re using, it’s just his or her sensibility, and that will be a lot more fun to play.

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John Swanbeck directed the existential film comedy “The Big Kahuna” starring Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito. He is currently scripting a new comedy with the original writer of Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie.” His stage productions have appeared in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. His highly acclaimed e-book for actors “John Swanbeck's: How to Steal the Scene & End Up Playing the Lead” is available now on Amazon and iTunes. His company BlueSwanFilms is producing the animated series “Newbie” and the live comedy show The BlueSwanFilms Traveling Comedy Show. John is also the creator and writer of the comic strip “The Daily Life of 'Pants’". For John’s on-camera workshops email You can follow John on Twitter @CleverActorTips and visit BlueSwanFilms.Com.

John Swanbeck
John Swanbeck is an author, columnist, speaker, creator, and publisher of CleverActorTips and Chief Creative Officer of BlueSwanFilms. He is a renowned director and teacher of actors, directed the existential comedy “The Big Kahuna” starring Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito, and has packaged his best original techniques into the much-acclaimed book, “How To Steal The Scene & End Up Playing The Lead,” available on Amazon & iTunes.

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