Do You Want to Build a Character?
As I chat with students and friends about holiday traditions, one consistently favorite way to celebrate is with Christmas movies. It just doesn't feel Christmas until the family has gathered around to watch Buddy the Elf decorate the living room or Linus explain the meaning of the season to Charlie Brown. Movies, books, and theatre are all vehicles of storytelling. What is it that makes stories so compelling?
"The brain remembers music and forgets about noise… Story is similar to music. A good story takes a series of random events and distills them into the essence of what really matters. (Donald Miller, Storybrand)
I’m sure experts can answer this question more adequately, but for me, it comes down to characters. We see ourselves in the people that make up the story – real or imaginary – and willingly go on the journey with them. Building a rich, relatable character is the fun part of writing, directing, and acting. Doing it well is the most essential part of storytelling because characters are the heartbeat of the story.
The basic building blocks of a character are in knowing who you are, why you are there, and where you are going/what you want. Some of these answers will be spelled out in the script. Others will require the use of your imagination. Here are three things to think about as you build.
Not an actor? These tips can be applied to Bible Study too!
1. Find the Focus, Serve the Story
Unlike the character, the actor knows what’s coming next and how the story ends. This benefit gives the actor a sense of the character’s importance in relation to the whole story. In life we all tend to think and live like we’re the stars of our own show. But in a story, there is something greater at work, a bigger picture that every actor plays a part in sharing. (That’s actually true in life too…Small Parts Do Matter)
Knowing what the scene is about and where the audience needs to put their focus means the actor has a responsibility to enhance and highlight the main action. If you are a townsperson in a mob scene, it might be completely in character for you to yell and throw things. But if that action distracts from the sweet, plot propelling moment the main characters are having downstage, you have not done your job. Likewise, if your character is the center of the action for the scene, take the time to research and rehearse different choices until you find the strongest, most compelling action.
Not sure if you’re pulling focus or serving the story? Ask! In rehearsal, make big, strong choices and let the director pull you back if they need to. Work with your cast members. Ask for their feedback and work together on finding a solution to the problem on stage.
2. Start but don’t Stop with the Stereotype
Stories follow a simple structure and the best storytellers know how to work within that structure to tell stories that are fresh and relevant. They do this by embracing the stereotypes and building upon them. The hero, the ingenue, the villain, the sidekick - these familiar kinds of people naturally populate stories. Knowing which function your character plays is a useful tool in understanding your role within the world of the story. Once you know the rules you can break them. See, stereotypes are only the beginning of the process. Playing “the dreamy ingenue” will fall flat. Playing the character - the emotionally full, three-dimensional, person who also happens to be the innocent, naïve, young woman in the story - will produce someone truthful and identifiable that the audience will want to root for. Like finding the focus, knowing the stereotype can help you understand your position within the scene. Start with the stereotype but don’t stay there. I love Lindsay Price's advice from Theatrefolk.com:
“Sometimes the easiest way into a character is to focus on common and broad personality traits, or stereotypes. This leads to teenagers playing grandmothers as if they can barely walk, with a shaky voice and grey hair. Beginning actors also lean on stereotypes when they’re trying to get a laugh. Beginners go for the easy laugh because they don’t know any other way. Even in a wacky comedy it’s best to take the time to build a three-dimensional character. Find the laughter through action and the pursuit of a want rather than trying to trick the audience into an easy laugh.
How do we solve this? Write up character profiles. If the playwright doesn’t provide enough detail, fill in the blanks. Who is your character? Where do they come from? What is the makeup of their family? What do they like/dislike? What memories do they hold dear? What are the significant moments from their life? Define and write down exactly what your character wants and how they pursue that want in every scene. Will they go to extremes? Do something out of character? Figure out what stands in the way of your character getting what they want and how they’re going to deal with this obstacle – that’s where you’ll find the funny.”
3. Make choices that are supported by the text
Actors make choices. Put enough choices together and you have a story. When an actor studies a scene, they break it down into beats or movements based on what happens to them. The actor decides how a character is going to react and respond to the events of the scene. The strongest choices are grounded in and based on the script. The script probably won’t give you every detail about the character – where they grew up, what their relationship is with their parents, or what their favorite subject is in school. But you can imagine some of these details from the events of the scene, which then helps you decide on the strongest choice.
“There are boundaries, of course. The characters they create have to fit within the world of the play. For example, if you’re playing a Shark in West Side Story, it wouldn’t make sense to have the name Nostradamus and live in a spaceship. But other than that, the sky’s the limit.” – Craig Mason, theatrefolk.com
In the classic story The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christen Andersen (adapted many times as plays, movies, and books), the central character is the youngest daughter of the sea king. She wants desperately to see the world above the waters. Once she achieves that, she wants to be a part of the world above the waters. These desires drive every decision she makes and every interaction she has throughout the story. An actor could play the little mermaid as a feisty, strong-willed teenager, rebelling against the harsh rules of the sea or as a meek, docile princess who loves silently to the end. What choice does the story support?
She is described as being quiet, thoughtful, beautiful, delicate, and inquisitive. She is close with her family, especially her sisters and grandmother, who have all grown indifferent to humanity. Though she ultimately makes choices that separate her from her family and go against their wishes, she starts the story as a very obedient daughter.
From these notes we can infer that the little mermaid does have a fierce inner fire. She is not a victim. Throughout the story her desire to be human will battle against her deep family bonds, which will make her choices on stage very active, purposeful, and ultimately compelling to watch!
Building characters is the fun part of this thing called theatre. The audience, the director, even your fellow cast members may never know how much work your put into your backstory. But the more time you take imagining and studying who you are, the richer your source material will be when it comes time to rehearse and perform.
Keep the story central. Find the focus of the scene, build on the stereotype, and support your choices with the script.
You can search for “character analysis” on Pinterest or Google to find lots of great resources and activities for character building, or check out my tools, Backstage (a library of free resources for my email subscribers! Subscribe to get the password.)
The Simple Character Analysis helps you analyze who you are in the play.
The Simple Scene Analysis breaks down your role in the scene.
The Simple Character Profile guides you to build a backstory.