Building Character From The Inside
Posted on 31 May 2013
I am doing theatrical comedy again this coming Melbourne Fringe Festival. I love making bold casting choices based on both the quality of a comedian’s performance and how interesting their choices are both as a performer and a person. This means I have to spend time with my cast as people BEFORE writing the script in order to make the best use of their strengths and draw out the most comedy.
This drives the actors nuts, who just want a script plunked in front of them. But let me reassure you: if you are an actor, with your patience you will be getting something that shows you to your best effect.
As such I like starting the process off with a pizza party or the like. This time around I’m having to do some character improvisation with people. I’ve been looking online for good exercises to help. This has put me in the way of advice for actors on how to build characters.
All of my degrees from Bachelors to Doctorate are in creative writing, so I was surprised to find how recently the acting community have been trying to re-invent the wheel when it comes to character creation. And much of it incomplete from my experience.
A writer or actor only needs to know a few of the externals to their characters in order to bring them to life. Those externals are important for bringing the story to life. So, don’t ignore them if you are writing a show. However, when getting a handle on Andromeda Starflop or Sir Convivius Throckmorton, only those things that have influenced their inner life are crucial.
Acting schools rightfully emphasize the importance of motivation. Your character needs a good reason for going from point A to point B. This makes their behaviour purposeful and believable on stage.
For each scene or scenario this is stated as a full infinitive “to do” something. In a kitchen scene your motivation may be “to feed the dog”. Therefore it becomes clear that your character should pick up the dog bowl, take a can of food out of the cupboard, open it with the can opener, pour contents into bowl, call the dog, and place the bowl of yummies in front of her. This scene could be broken down into smaller motivations such as “to pick up bowl” or “to call the dog”.
This sort of motivation gives you things to do. You also want the sort of motivation that brings the scene to life with emotion. Why do you want to feed the dog? To feel loved? To feel powerful?
The overarching wants of the lead characters will form the plot of a story. Andromeda Starflop wants to launch a series of space gyms to keep aliens healthy. She wants to feel good about herself by helping others. Sir Convivius wants to stop her in order to keep selling his addictive candies and thereby to remain rich and powerful.
We don’t always want what we need or need what we want. We may want Sir Convivius Candies, but we need all organic Venusian ecto-moss with extra vitamins. We all experience the tension between wants and needs. We all understand the sort of heartbreak it can cause. The more apparent you make this split in your characters, the more empathetic they will become and the more compelling the drama.
Ultimately we all fear pain and death. Note that each person, each character, will have a particular slant on this whether it be fear of rejection, water, change, spiders, etc. Fear and ego are powerful motivators. So no character will be without these.
People divide “light” and “dark” sides differently. For our purposes the light-side is that part of a character they are willing to let others see in the light of day, and the dark-side is that part they would rather keep hidden.
We are usually happy to let others see our strengths. So what strengths do your characters possess? We usually hide weaknesses. What weaknesses do your characters possess?
Andromeda Starflop is bold and caring. Sir Convivius is also bold. He is also rapacious. He will hide aspects of his rapaciousness in order to achieve his ends. Andromeda Starflop may also be rapacious, but keeps that hidden and in check. Therefore that is her weakness. Sir Convivius might be able to recruit her using that weakness.
Sir Convivius may not be universally caring, but he may care deeply for his pet iguana. That caring becomes a part of his dark side, because he fears the vulnerability it brings and so hides his feelings. Andromeda Starflop may be able to recruit Sir Convivius using that weakness.
Absolutely no one is all dark-side or all light-side. Not unless you dropped them into a bottomless hole or burnt them in the sun.
You might want to estimate on a scale of one to ten how your characters feel about themselves. At ten they genuinely think they are fan-friggin-tastic, at one they feel like a worm. Going even deeper, how do they want to be seen? Do they want to be seen as heroic, but feel like a worm? How do they think they are seen? Do they feel like a warrior, but think people only see them as a daycare worker? Lots of useful tensions here in portraying your characters. Even clues for portraying body language.
Source of self-worth
What makes your characters feel worthy? How would they finish the sentence “I feel worthy because…” The answer could be anything: I am rich, fit, smart, kind, good-looking, adaptable, powerful, trustworthy, etc. Choose one and maybe a secondary source of worthiness. This will give you clues as to how they feel when someone says, “Are you tired? You look it.” The characters who judge themselves on wealth, kindness, or adaptability may respond with a smile, since it is indicative of their hard work. The characters who judge themselves on fitness and looks may be upset.
In real life I’m often astonished at the individuals I know who see the world as a dangerous place and people as no darn good, then are surprised when they have problems with depression. Of course, they’re depressed!
This demonstrates how powerful worldview is on our feelings and choices. Each character will be optimistic, pessimistic, or indifferent to the state of the world. This will not always be the same view they hold on human character. They may believe that nature is a fearful force in need of dominating, but are optimistic about human nature and our capacity to “overcome” the natural world.
Another part of worldview has to do with our understandings of where power is located and how much access we have to that power. Is power located in governments, religions, conspiracy groups (Illuminati), military, gods, nature, biological processes, processes of physics, academics, banks, corporations, white people, etc. Who do we feel should have power and why?
What do they value?
What do your characters feel is the most important thing in their lives? For what would they risk their lives? Their marital partner, their children, friends, a piece of forest, a rare painting, their integrity, a position of power and control, etc. Knowing this will give you a better idea about what your characters will choose to focus upon and what constitutes their passions.
Certain externals have and will continue to have considerable influence on the evolving sense of self your characters will portray.
This is probably the largest external you will have to grapple with. Consider these questions on the behalf of your character. Where were they born? Within what sort of culture were they raised? Were they born rich or poor? Are they rich or poor now? What is the history of their health? Have they experienced war, famine, drought, disease? What sort of education did they have access to?
Look at all the things that give valid reasons for them being as they are now. Sir Convivius may be rapacious because he was born into a poor family. Andromeda Starflop may also have been born into a poor family, but she chose to use that as inspiration to be more generous. We can feel empathy for both outcomes, even though one is more pro-social than the other. Motivations become clearer.
What are their relationships like?
The culture a person is in may say that purple people are stupid, but because a purple parent believed in their child that child may go on to be a Nobel Prize winner in literature or physics. Relationships are a powerful influence in character building. So how does your character relate to their family, friends, romantic partners, enemies, their superiors, their inferiors, and people in general?
Each character will either have challenges placed upon them or choose to take up challenges. Some challenges will be more personal than others. What personal concerns are they struggling with? Weight, a lisp, lack of self-confidence? What people do they feel are holding them back, standing in their way, or oppressing them? Are they struggling against the destructive forces of nature whether it be a cyclone, a rugged mountain, a drought, fearsome animals, or disease. Perhaps they have chosen to face down an unfair law in a corrupt system.
Your characters will want to achieve things. All of the above work will help you to determine why, but you will still want to be clear about what. Also, become aware of whether this goal is something they have chosen for themselves or something others have thrust upon them. Andromeda Starflop may be good simply because people expect her to be, and she values their estimation, not because she has much interest in the do-gooding business.
When you know these things about any character you choose to write about or perform, you will have the insight to make decisions on their behalf. You don’t have to know in advance whether or not they would like a purple Cadillac. From who they are the choice will be obvious. Improvisations as that character will be smoother and more consistent. I highly recommend taking the time to think about these things. Then when it comes time to perform or write…throw them out the window. Just be the character and allow them to flow. Your work will pay off in subtle and intuitive ways.
Peace and kindness,