The Theatre 101 Series is a set of introductory articles meant to explain theatrical concepts and situations to young actors as well as adult theatrical newcomers. View the whole series here.
As you begin your rehearsal process, you’ll likely hear a lot about the importance of building a character. What exactly does this mean, and how should you go about it?
As always in theatre, this is a highly personal process, and I won’t pretend to have all of the answers. Nonetheless, hopefully this article gives you a solid starting point.
What is “Building a Character”?
It’s all there in the name: this is the process of creating a convincing character from the ground up. Think about what you’d want someone playing yourself in a biographical play to know and do on stage: You’d probably want them to understand you very well. You’d want them to be able to replicate the way you move and speak, as well as the way you relate with the people around you. You would expect the actor to present a complete “portrait” of yourself. You should aim for the same with every character you represent on stage!
When you understand your character in this way, you will be able to perform in a believable, compelling way.
The first step to building a character is to do your homework!
But where do you even start? Though not everyone’s process would need to look like this, and there’s definitely room for personal preference, here’s a nice process template to get you started:
- Research the author
- Analyze the setting
- Analyze the script
- Reflect on your own experiences
- Use your imagination
Research the Author
A good starting point when analyzing any piece of writing is to figure out exactly who the author is. You can get some useful information about the story, themes, and characters this way.
For instance, when did the author live? You can make some inferences about the story with this information. Think of the difference between a story about a rebellious, headstrong woman written in Shakespeare’s time versus today. Might it make a difference if this story was written by a man versus by a woman? What might the author’s culture at the time of writing have said about that character when the story was first published? What might the author have thought about that character? Of course, if the author is still alive, discovering this information might be rather easy: you can probably find all sorts of reviews, analyses, and interviews online.
It also helps to see if the author published any other works. Many authors like to write about the same themes and messages. If an author is known for their stories about feminism, you might be able to infer that theme will come up again in the script in question.
Get an idea, if possible, of what the author stood for or believed in. Think about how a story with a child main character might change if you knew the author had a deep disdain for children in real life.
This is hard work, but you’re not done yet. All of this information sets a solid baseline for further analysis!
Analyze the Setting
Before you get into analyzing the script, you should always analyze the story’s setting. Where does it take place? When? What is the culture surrounding the characters like?
Remember, every story takes place within the context of a time and place. People thought and behaved very differently in 1900 than they do today, right? Therefore, understanding the culture of a story is necessary for understanding how the characters might think and feel.
You’ll want to scour the script for clues, but you also have lots of resources beyond the script to consult. If the story is set during the American civil war, for instance, you can easily find a wealth of information online or in books about that era. Try to find out as much as you can, especially about how the events of the era influenced the way people looked, behaved, thought, or talked.
If the story takes place in a fantasy setting, it may be hard to analyze the setting. You’ll have to refer to the script for any hints about the culture of the world in which the show takes place. Your research on the author may also come in handy here: might any of your research about the author reveal clues about the kind of world they would be interested in writing about? Would the culture in which the author lived provide any clues about the culture portrayed in the script?
Analyzing the Script
Once you’ve done all your background work, it’s time to analyze the script! This can be a pretty drawn-out process, and it will probably be the step you spend the most time on.
It helps to read the script at least once or twice (preferably more!) just to get the general gist of the story before buckling down to do your analysis.
Look for anything and everything you can find about your character. Is there a character description, physical or emotional, anywhere in the script? Are any mannerisms or physical traits described in the script? How does your character behave, and what do they say about themselves? What do other characters say about your character? What do the people they love say about them, and what do the people who dislike them say about them? Can you find any stage directions or author’s notes that imply anything about the character? Important: How does your character feel about the other characters around them?
Perhaps most importantly, what does your character want? What motivates them? What stands in their way? How does this change from scene to scene? Do they get what they want in the end, or not? How do they feel at the show’s end– how do they feel about reaching or not reaching their goal?
Any time you discover something new, make a note of it. It may help to write down everything you find on a sheet of paper so you can quickly look over every “clue” later. You can also organize these notes into seperate categories for easy review: Make seperate pages to keep track of physical traits or mannerisms, personal beliefs or statements, information about relationships with other characters, or more.
You probably won’t be able to find exact answers to all of these questions in the script. In that case, you’ll have to start turning to other sources of information.
Reflect on Your own Experiences
This may seem obvious, but an excellent way to fill in the gaps in the information the script provides is to think about your own personal experiences.
Remember, though: You’re not playing yourself on stage. So if your character is bullied in a scene and you’re wondering how they would feel about it, remember that you’re not asking how you feel, exactly. You’re asking, if you were under the same circumstances, in the exact same situation, what you would feel.
Let’s think about this further using the example of a scene where your character is bullied. Maybe you’ve been bullied in real life. It may have made you feel sad and dejected. But let’s say the character in the show knows a dangerous secret about their bully, and knows they can get the upper hand by spilling this secret! If you were in the same situation as this character, you might feel empowered rather than upset.
Let’s look at a different example. Say a teacher praised your character in a scene. In real life, you might be the kind of person who would be embarrassed by this. However, the script might imply your character believes they are better than others around them, and therefore expects this kind of praise. Given those circumstances, your character probably wouldn’t be embarrassed.
One last example: Say your character’s loved one passes away in the show. You may understand what this feels like. You would naturally expect the character to be sad. But say the script provides us with the knowledge that this loved one was the only person who accepted your character for who they were, and loved your character like a child. Say that the script told us this character was preparing to adopt your character and whisk them away from a bad home life. This sort of specific information allows you to create a much more specific characterization than simply “sad”! If you were in the same situation with the same circumstances, you might feel heartbroken, hopeless, or even betrayed. The more specific your characterization, the more compelling it will be on stage.
As you can see, there is value in using your own experiences to learn about your character. After all, you probably want your character to act like a human being, and since you are a human being, you have a lot of expertise to draw from! However, you must treat the script as king. Pay attention to what clues it provides about your character, and see if you can shape your experiences to perfectly fit those clues.
Use Your Imagination
This is especially important if there isn’t much information about your character in the script. There may be a lot of gaps in your character’s biography if you only refer to the script. In these cases, it’s time to use your imagination!
You may have to invent reasons why your character feels a certain way about another character, or invent backstories for what they’re doing on their way to and from different scenes. Knowing this information, even if it’s not in the script, will make your character feel more realistic and “lived-in.”
For instance, say your character has been searching for another character, and finds them upon entering a scene. How might what you were doing just before entering make the scene more interesting? How might the scene change if you had been looking everywhere all day for the other character, and thought they were in danger? What if your character’s parent had just scolded them for losing track of the lost character? What if your character had just been to the police station asking about them, and had received step-by-step instructions to reach the place the lost character was waiting?
Even if the audience never knew your exact reasoning for entering as you did, these choices would change the scene in small ways. Of course, you still have to follow the script– don’t just make up characterizations that don’t match the rest of the information you have!
Say you’re in a scene as a background character– a character unnamed in the script who appears chatting with friends in a school cafeteria, or a named character who has a one-liner but no other information about them in the script. Your imagination will be doing a lot of work in this situation!
Putting it all Together
Once you’ve assembled all your information, put it all side-by-side. Capturing the entirety of a character’s existence on paper is difficult, and constructing a comprehensive character from facts on a page is even harder!
After looking over all of your information, make inferences. Say you learned your character is a bold, brave, headstrong person. Even if the script says nothing about how your character looks or moves, you can probably make educated guesses to fill in the blanks.
Try to create a complete “image” of your character from your information, personal experiences, and imagination. While acting out lines and blocking, think about what the information you have tells you about how you should perform. If you ever feel “stuck” on a line, or don’t know how to act a certain section, you can review your research and see if that sheds any light on your problem.
Always try to keep your character’s personality and goals in mind while on stage. Remember, their goals and behaviors are your goals and behaviors! It’s not enough to simply assemble all your information– you must also use it and convey it to your audience while on stage.
However, you shouldn’t let your research hold you back, either. You should always try out new ideas and characterizations on stage. It’s possible that your research won’t necessarily always yield the most interesting or “playable” results. Therefore, never be afraid to step away from all the information you’ve collected and approach the script with fresh eyes. Otherwise your performance may begin to feel boring or stale to both you and your audience!
Building a character is one of the most fun and most challenging parts of the performing process! Careful analysis of your script and character can help you develop a more complete, interesting, and relatable performance on stage. Do your homework well! Remember, while the script can’t answer all of your questions, it will help you a lot, and your imagination is always there to fill in the blanks when you get stuck.