The idea of character is tricky. A strong sense of character can empower a performer to step away from themselves and deliver a fierce (or feeble), immersive performance. Unfortunately, it can also create a block between the intellectual understanding of the story and the spontaneous telling of it. If you have ever said, “My character wouldn’t do that!” to a director, perhaps you should try a new approach.
Here is a simple way to approach a script in order to avoid some of the traps of character.
Firstly, it’s important to understand what part your character plays in the story. This is also known as your character’s function in the play. It may sound simple, but lots of actors become so self-involved they forget the bigger picture.
Ask yourself: Am I playing the protagonist? If the answer is ‘yes’, then you can start scanning the script for all of your characters problems. The protagonist always has the biggest problem! Walter White from Breaking Bad comes to mind, but perhaps John Procter in The Crucible is more appropriate. If the answer is ‘no’, then you can start to look at how your character creates problems for the protagonist. Generally, characters who are not protagonists are antagonists. Making the journey of the protagonist more difficult will help give the whole play stakes.
I strongly believe that you could stop your character development here. Your character is now a functional demonstration of what the character says and does in the telling of the story. During rehearsal, anything you offer in the moment will be accepted or thrown away by your director. These instinctive offers will organically layer your character without restrictions.
However, for some actors this isn’t enough. So, here are three valuable contextual questions you can ask yourself to make your character more complex. The answers to these questions should always complement your character’s function.
What is my character’s mental/emotional state? Remember your character’s mental state will change in each scene, in between each scene and throughout the play. Beware of washing out your performance with a generalised emotional state.
What are my characters moral qualities? Clarify your character’s belief system. This will influence how your character reacts to new information.
What are the physical qualities of my character? Usually your character’s physical qualities will be a combination of your own and a costume. Beware of extreme physical choices that are not written in the script. They are not functional and will make you look silly!
Always remember your character is just one part of a much bigger story.