Whether you’re on the hunt for a jumping off point, a quick something-something to add to your process or a deep-dive into your latest role: I present to you my holy grail list of exercises, techniques, questions and considerations for building better characters. These might help answer such questions as: ‘Who, on earth, is my character?’ ‘What the hell is going through my character’s head in scene 25?‘ and ‘What do I do with my hands?’ No fear, actors: let’s open up the spice drawer of character building and have a look inside, shall we?
Before Building a Character
Creating a character is hands-down the best part of the acting process: experiencing someone else’s life, being in someone else’s head and finding out what makes them tick. Whether the character I’m playing walks on for five seconds or they’re the lead in the story, I will make sure I’ve decided everything about them: what they had for breakfast, their political affiliation and who their third cousin is. I can’t help myself!
To begin your process, there’s the usual ABC’s you might do for a project that uses a script: script analysis, finding your objective and actions, plotting your beats, mapping out your story arc, etc. You might work out your given circumstances, apply some Stanislavski Method or the like… These are the “non-negotiables of our craft”, dare I say (and I do).
But once all that work is done, then you can really get your paints out, get up on the floor and start building your character. Storytelling is inherent to all of us: acting is an art and creating a character is how you get to show the artistry in your work. The unique combination of choices you make—that’s your signature. I’m not talking making big, crazy oogly-boogly choices in your work for oogly-boogly’s sake. You have to make conscious choices (even through trial and error) that help you tell the overall story in the best way possible.
1. What are the themes of your character’s story?
Trust me, here: every single time I work on a new script, I tend to underestimate how profoundly having the theme of the story at the front of my mind informs creative choices. It helps eliminate the things we don’t need and keeps us in the same story as everyone else we’re performing with.
Everything comes back to theme at the end of the day. What are some of the big ones? Death, power, money, corporate corruption, the pursuit of happiness, ambition, racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, the universal longing to belong… Whatever the theme is, keep it at the forefront of everything you do: try to understand how your character serves the story you’re telling in their individual relation to that theme.
2. What does the writer say about your character?
In a character breakdown, sometimes you’ll get nothing more than the character’s name. Sometimes, you’ll get their age, occupation and even the details of their relationship to other characters in the story. Write all that down! The character bio that a screenwriter might give you can vary wildly, from the most in depth-description of a character you’ve ever seen, to something like this:
SALLY. Works at the mechanics, has known SIMON for three years. Suspicious. 26.
Or even this:
In terms of characterisation, the amount of detail the writer gives you reveals how much creative license you have to use. It shows you whether you have to turn a square, a dodecahedron or a singular line into a three-dimensional living, breathing human. If you are given that singular line of ‘WOMAN–any age‘, I feel the writer is saying to me: “Go for it, I have no idea who she is yet.” What a gift!
3. What does your character say about themselves?
Get your face back in that script and go through it with a fine-tooth comb. If your character says anything about themselves, then get your notebook out and write it all down—no matter how big or how small it may seem.
What do these things reveal to you about your character’s self-awareness? Are they a good judge of their own character? Are they modest about their capabilities? And if so, why? Are they being truthful about themselves or are they lying? If they are lying, why are they lying? What’s at stake for them? Isolating these things and asking these questions will bring you closer and closer to how your character perceives themselves. And most importantly, the difference in how they present in public to others, and privately to themselves.
As an extension to this: think about how your character speaks—about themselves or others. Do they speak with confidence? Do they fill a page with dialogue? Maybe they don’t say much at all. Why not? Do they use a ten-dollar phrase when a five-buck word would do? What’s their level of education? Writers often give us all sorts of hints about characters, hidden in plain sight as dialogue. Remember that every single word has been agonised over: work to discover the reason behind each individual choice.
4. What do other characters say about your character?
This one’s similar to the previous exercise, but now you’re only looking for what other characters say about yours. Once again, question and deduce whether these things are accurate or not. Are they observations or judgements? Are they telling a story from your character’s past? Is your character present or not present when these things are said? Do these things ultimately help your character or not? I like to think of it as though you’re a lawyer representing your character in court and you’re combing through the evidence you’ve been presented. Advocate for them—defend them!
The power you gain from these discoveries gives you the ability to decide whether to actively play into, or not play into what’s being said about your character. Or do a blend of both. You can test out things in rehearsal to see what it does to the dynamic amongst the other characters, how it adds friction and how it can roughen up the edges of the characters relationships a little bit.
5. Discuss with your director.
It’s always a good idea to approach the work as a collaborative effort. The best directors I’ve ever worked with have given me free reign from the beginning and haven’t told me too much of what they want the character to be. But they can always help steer me in another direction if I’m heading too far down the wrong path, or if I’ve hit a dead end. Although, if I have any major queries about characterisation at the very beginning, it’s always a good idea to ask on day one, or even beforehand if possible. Don’t waste a single day of rehearsal: ask early on.
These could be specific character bio queries, how realistic or stylized the world of the play/film is and how much they want that to affect the performance style, if the character has a physical feature, an ability or way of moving that is significant to the story and what are we going to do to show that? These are all good things to decide early on to help make good foundations to build your character on from the start, and can make your time spent working in the rehearsal room and the homework you do as efficient and effective as possible.
6. What don’t you have in common with your character?
Whether or not there’s a big leap between the character’s life experience and my own, I write down a list of everything myself and my character don’t have in common. These can be as simple as:
- I didn’t grow up in an urban environment like my character.
- My character grew up in a family of 7 people, whereas I grew up in a house of 4.
- We have different accents.
- We were born on and live in different continents.
- I am not an assassin, whereas my character is.
Or as complex as:
- My character knows how to give someone first aid in a crisis, I don’t currently have those skills.
- My character has had a near death experience which affected the trajectory of their life, whereas I have not.
7. What do you and your character have in common?
Once you’ve finished that list, get out your notebook and write down every single thing that you and your character do have in common. Once again, it doesn’t matter how obvious or obscure they may be. It can really simplify the process and help you understand the character on a human level. Every time I do this, it completely surprises me to discover how many things myself and my character have in common. Think of this as building a bridge between yourself and your character—even if it looks like there’s an enormous space between yourself and them. Here are a few examples of the kinds of things I might take note of:
- We are both women.
- We were both born in the same era
- We both have siblings
- My character mentions that she like zucchini, I also like zucchini
- My character says she is not afraid to talk about death. I also feel this way.
- My character talks a lot about her cousins, I also do the same.
- We both received an education
8. What do you respect or admire about your character?
Even if your character is a tyrannical dictator who kills everyone, I find that writing a list of things I (at the very least) respect, or (at the very most) admire about the character helps me find some sort of empathy for them as a person. Even if you consider their actions immoral or unjust, you still have to be your character’s biggest advocate in the rehearsal space—and, eventually, in the story itself. It’s our job as actors to understand why people are what they are and do what they do.
Let’s go with the tyrannical dictator example. The task here is not to try and condone your character’s actions, exerting a moral high-ground over them or excusing them for any beliefs they may have. But rather: to strive for finding a place of impartiality or neutrality to play the character from. Or at least as much as you possibly can. Playing from a place of emotional judgement can result in instructing the audience to feel about them that same way you do. If you play the character with all their faults as they’re written, free of your own personal judgement, the audience will respect that.
This task can always help you to pinpoint why the character behaves a certain way, has a certain world view, a perception of other people or of life in general that is unique to them. What have they endured, witnessed, battled or been taught/subjected to that has made them who they are? Do you respect these things or consider certain attributes they’ve developed admirable? There’s always a reason, and I’m always up for finding that reason, no matter how dark, macabre or insidious the character’s actions and worldview may be.
9. What is your character’s relationship to every other character in the script?
Depending on the script, I prefer to start simple and build on it as I go: “This is him, this is her, she likes him, he likes someone else, that’s her uncle, he’s so and so’s brother…” Just so I can keep tabs on who is who, what is what, and who means what to whom. And I just keep adding and writing down details as I discover them.
But you can go absolutely nuts with this one if you’d like. Draw a family tree, do a graph, make a Venn diagram, create a series of dating profiles. The sky’s the limit, here. Whatever it is you need to help you see the overall picture and where your character fits in relationship-wise, go for it.
10. What is your character’s relationship to the yargets in the story?
Scene by scene, break it down: what are the targets your character needs to hit, and what do they mean to you personally? Your specific target list all helps build your character and identifies another aspect of what makes them different to everyone else in the play. If you’re unfamiliar with how to identify your targets, check out our book review on Declan Donnellan’s The Actor and The Target.
11. What is your character’s relationship to the world, the universe and beyond?
These are a slightly more in-depth list of character questions. If you like, you can go back over the lists you’ve already made about how you and your character relate to each other for reference. Ask yourself:
- What are their politics?
- Are they hopeful or pessimistic about themselves and their future?
- Are they an existential thinker?
- What are their beliefs?
- How do they respond to their beliefs, politics, spirituality or world view being questioned or debated?
- Do they have any obvious or specific spirituality?
- Do they believe in another dimension running alongside their own?
- Do they believe in a spirit world?
- Do they believe in a higher power?
- Do they think laterally or literally?
- What’s their relationship to authority?
- Are they a sceptic?
- Are they a conspiracy theorist?
- If it’s not specified, would they buy into conspiracy theories or not?
Do any of these things change for your character throughout the story? And how do these attributes then inform your character’s motivations and inner drive as the story develops? Some more things to question are:
- Have they always been told predominantly yes or no throughout their lives?
- How many major obstacles have they faced in their life thus far?
Consider how these things might affect their reaction to achieving or not achieving their objective throughout a scene. What is their sense of expectation looking like, and how hard have they had to fight for what they needed in the past? Has it made them develop tactical or strategic thinking? Knowing these things helps me make decisions about my character that I can experiment, subvert and muck around with in the rehearsal room.
12. What is your character’s voice?
Get specific, get local, get regional! The more specific you can get and the earlier you can start, the better. It’s a lot harder to layer on a brand new accent or a vocal affectation in the late stages of your rehearsal process than it is working it into your scene work from day one. This can ensure you have time to properly embody the character’s voice, so the work is done and you won’t have to actively think about it.
There are so many secrets about a character that can reveal themselves through an accent or voice, not just geographical origins. If you have access to this sort of information about your character, consider how the way they speak can be influenced by:
- Their parents’ heritage.
- Whether they grew up speaking more than one language.
- Whether they grew up surrounded by high rises.
- Whether they grew up in the endlessly repetitive mazes of suburbia.
- Or with wide open spaces and endless plains of wheat stretching out before their eyes.
- Whether they’ve lived in multiple geographical locations and set-ups.
- If they grew up around hills, canyons or concrete unit blocks.
- Whether they were always told children should be seen and not heard.
- Or they were given licence to let their presence be known vocally any time they pleased.
- Whether they grew up amongst nature, the ground beneath them irregular and uneven. Where sound seems to reverberate out and then disappear into the void ahead.
- Or the hard blunt surfaces of a concrete jungle, where the sound of a million beeping cars bounces and echoes into a cacophony around them.
Your character, just like you, has a uniquely specific sound to compete with or in response to their immediate surroundings, their heritage, their social conditioning. It forms their vocal patterns, habits, cadence and then level of freedom they feel to express themselves vocally.
Also, consider your character’s opinion of how they sound:
- Does your character slightly alter or feel a need to formalize their accent in social and professional settings?
- Do they need to differentiate themselves vocally amongst other characters in the play/film?
- Are they embarrassed by, proud of or neutral about their accent?
The discoveries you make and choices you cement from specifying your character’s way of speaking don’t need to be commented on or pressed onto your audience. This sort of investigative work and consideration is all there to add nuance and another layer to add to the acting work you do on the floor. A different accent won’t be relevant to every character you play, but when you do get that opportunity, curiously pursue the depths of how much voice can define a human as they move through the world, strive for what they need and forge an identity.
13. Your character’s walk.
This one’s notorious for a reason. Layering on a stylised walk purely for the sake of being different or to draw the audience’s attention never ends well. Most of the time, people will immediately say ‘Why’s Steve walking like that?’, rather than taking in the story. Stay curiously creative, be respectful and have fun physically exploring how your character moves through the world and why.
Some things to consider:
- Where is their centre of gravity?
- From which body part do they lead when they walk?
- How does it differ to yours?
- How does this shift influence their inner world, or not?
- Is the story in a stylised world?
- In what environment do we see your character?
- Does it affect how urgently your character needs to move from one place to the other?
- What’s their occupation, if any, and does it influence the way they move?
- Is their walk affected by their age?
- Is their walk affected by past injuries?
You don’t have to go big and bold to convey anything to your audience. You’ll find that something as simple as a subtle shift of your centre of gravity can affect your gait dramatically. Do some homework on it before a rehearsal, muck around with it at home with some big bold offers, distil it down and see what could work and what will help you. I always underestimate the power of just knowing where my character’s centre of gravity is, and how their inner motor differs to mine. The knowledge, alone, can drastically affect a scene.
14. Your character and gesture.
Never underestimate the power of gesture. Again, know exactly how stylised the project is on the scale of naturalism right up to avant-garde absurdism. Does your character have a repetitive or habitual action? Or a nervous tic that they are always trying to hide from those around them? How are they publicly-private on stage, or in front of the camera? Do they stand suspiciously still or have a hectic energy when under pressure? Do they have a tell? You have the power to decide how good their poker face is, and when they reveal what’s churning on the inside. What a cool thing.
Think about their relationship to props, if that’s relevant to the scene (and we’ll talk more on this later). What does your character hold in their hands and how does that inform their gesture? Are they someone who always holds and flicks a lighter, or always has a pen in their hand and uses it to punctuate things in the air as they say them?
15. Write your character’s inner monologue.
It’s rare to receive a character who only ever means what they say, and says what they mean without a contrasting inner-monologue, drive, or agenda. If you’d like to read more about the inner monologue, we have covered it in more detail elsewhere.
Exactly how much your inner monologue influences your character development is up to you, but know that it can be significant. It allows you to take everything you know about your character’s past/present/future wants/needs/desires and boil it down into a rich, inner life. It informs your character’s actions, and then is either affirmed or challenged by what then happens next in the scene. And it keeps shifting and changing in response to the outside world.
Creating a solid inner monologue for your character is an awesome thing. It ensures the ever-present running commentary going on in their own inner world, keeping them engaged in pursuing their objective—both super- and in the present moment.
16. Stan the Man’s 3 Psychic Movers: Mind, Will, and Feelings.
What does your character give a damn about? What, exactly, propels them forward? Stanislavski distils it down to a triumvirate of:
- The Mind.
- The Feelings.
- The Will (Motivation).
Check out our complete breakdown of Stanislavski’s methodology if you want to learn more. For myself, certain words within the text (including what other characters are saying) spark images in my mind. This then creates a by-product of emotion which propels me forward into the next line, or into an action for the next mark I need to hit. Identify these ignition words, sentences or actions that might propel you forward to the next moment in the play with clarity and drive. Imagine you’re skiing down a hill and all those moments are the flag poles you’ve gotta reach and weave around.
Identifying these catalysts for action are super helpful in developing your character’s inner world. Usually they’re things said by another character in the scene, and a lot of the time they’re the key word in a sentence or key moment of action. We have a full breakdown on key words and how to find them here. Once I’ve written them all down I like to see if there’s a common thread that runs through them all. Does that collection of keywords themselves tell a story. Does it then reveal anything about who my character is and what they give a shit about?
17. Write a character backstory.
This is, hands down, my favourite step. I will take every liberty in creating the longest, most convoluted backstories you could possibly imagine. And nobody can stop me. Nobody! Whatever the writer hasn’t already given me about the character’s past, I will happily fill in on my own. Get all ‘Who Do you Think You Are?’ and ‘This is Your Life’ on that shit…
Decide everything about the character that gives the story meaning for you and gives you a whole person to play with. Write it all down! Or, better yet, get a friend to do a ‘hot-seat’ interview with you and improvise it. Decide where they were born, who their parents are, who their second cousin is. While you’re at it, decide why they stabbed someone in a K-Mart car park in 2012 and what that has to do with their purchase of a boat on page thirty-seven. No one has to know this backstory except you.
Write down every single hilarious and traumatic thing that has ever happened to them in their life, small things that they’ve done that no one else knows, the secrets they hold, the good and bad deeds they’ve done, the moments that shaped them and the moments that didn’t.
Backstory not only fills in the blanks for you, but gives you a stronger connection to who this character is at the time you’re portraying them. For me, it makes the whole process one hundred times more fun.
18. Diary entries.
If backstory isn’t your thing—or the writer has given you an in-depth backstory already—then diary entries may be a more helpful tool. The diary entry is a more personal, private admission of the innermost thoughts and feelings of your character’s experience, day-to-day.
You could write diary entries for your character’s days before, during or even after the events of the story—that last one’s if you want go hardcore with this exercise. Writing diary entries really helps me differentiate between my character’s social and private identities. It can help you find if there’s a significant tonal shift between the two. If so, take note of what it sounds and feels like.
19. Your character’s clothing.
You can do all of the above work—backstory, diarising, inner-monologuing, physical exploration, objectives, motivations—and still feel like you’re at square f**king one. Then, you put your character’s shoes on for the first time and you go:
“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, here she is.”
It can simply be where the pockets are placed on your character’s jacket that make you hold your arms differently. Or how you have to pull you shoulders so far back that your shoulder blades are almost pinching together; or the tight, restrictive lines of poorly-tailored professional wear informing how trapped your character feels in their own life. How much does the weight of the crown on your head feel like the weight of responsibility over an entire nation of people: does it make you push your chest out? Curl your shoulders forward? And does this shift throughout the story?
Sometimes, the clothes can do half the work for you. I wouldn’t suggest depending entirely on your character’s costume pieces to inform all of who they are, but it can sometimes be the missing piece of the puzzle—something that helps make your character feel lived in and allows an outside impetus to add to what’s going on inside. There’s a lot of inside-out work that needs doing, but don’t underestimate the power of the outside-in.
Which brings us to…
There many things your character may need to hold in their hands that are integral to the story. Most of these will be written into the script, such as: a revealing letter, a cigarette, a key, a gun, a baby, a skull, the hand of another character. But in the spirit of building a character, I’m interested in the objects that your character would subconsciously reach for (and yet are very much conscious decisions by you, the actor.)
I don’t know the science behind it, but I do know that props help me a lot. In real life, I’m almost always holding something without even realising it: hair ties, a pen, my bag, (detangling) my hair, bits of paper, a lipstick–something. Anything!
How does your character hold a given object? What does it add to the scene, or how does it muddy the scene? What inner state are they successfully hiding with object manipulation, or perhaps even revealing? Use whatever props you might find around you in the scene, bring in options if you’re working in a space that allows it and have fun with your exploration. But remember: always make sure you link your discoveries back to the story and see how they aid you in your telling of it.
Archetypes—classic, ‘stock’ representations of character types—have a great power to steer you in the right direction if you feel like you’ve gone too far off course. Locking down choices, or even knowing where to start building your character from, can feel really challenging at times, particularly if you’re not given a whole lot to work with in the text. I find that understanding which archetype my character is helps me to understand their dynamic with the other characters in the scene/play/film/story, and offers start to flow from there.
Is your character:
- The sovereign?
- The warrior?
- The sage?
- The mystic?
- The lover?
- The jester?
- The wildcard?
- The child?
- The orphan?
- The castaway?
- The rebel?
- The creator?
- The caregiver?
- The mentor?
- The seducer?
Or perhaps a blend of two or more? Realistically, everyone is a complex blend of archetypes all the time. And a character written with a fantastic arc will usually start as one and develop into another. Anakin Skywalker is a great example–beginning as a child and developing into a warrior. Each archetype has its own strengths, weaknesses and motivations.
And you can even use it to break down scene you’re doing to something as simple as:
The seducer tries to get intel from the castaway, but the jester is the obstacle.
The mystic advises the sovereign at the expense of the child, and then the caretaker loses their power to protect.
What options can that open for you? How does that help develop an understanding of a character’s powers and limitations in the scene/play/their whole life?
TV series and films such as Friends, The Nanny, Seinfeld, Game of Thrones, Saving Private Ryan, Ocean’s 11 and Killing Eve are great examples of archetype work. In theatre, the examples are almost too numerous: The Comedy of Errors, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Medea, Antigone, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The View from the Bridge, The Blue Room. It’s always a thrill and a joy to watch the actors establish their archetype, utilise it and subvert it.
22. Linklater’s Five P’s of Characterisation.
Kristin Linklater’s entire approach to voice in her book Freeing the Natural Voice is a brilliant read, but for the sake of this article we’ll just focus on her Five P’s of Characterisation. To answer the Six Q’s (who, what, when, where, why, how), she recommends answering the Five P’s:
- Personal – Who are you?
- Psychological – What’s your inner world?
- Professional – What’s your position in society?
- Political – In what political context do you live?
- Philosophical – What’s your character’s spirituality? Are they spiritual? How do you see the world?
This is another way to help provide a base for you to then build your character from in a more formulaic way. Even if you’re already halfway through your own process, I find that answering these five questions about my character/s before a rehearsal is a really valuable exercise.
This exercise can shift your focus to see the characters through a particular lens that you hadn’t yet considered. And at the very least can give you something new to bring to the table. Remember not to generalize with your answers, here: due to the simplicity of the five P’s, specificity is integral to its effectiveness.
23. Create a playlist for your character.
Listening to music can sometimes be the missing puzzle piece that helps complete your characterisation process. And making a playlist of songs relevant to your character is both a fun exploration exercise, as well as an effective tool to help you get into your character’s headspace and emotional state.
How does the music your character listens to inform how they see the world, their politics, how they express themselves or even how they move? If your character is from a different time or place, what music were people listening to where and when they’re from? What kind of music would your character have had access to?
Even if your character isn’t the kind of person who’d actively listen to music for the pleasure of it, what would be the running soundtrack of their world? Is their soundtrack beeping car horns, people yelling out of windows, music that spills out of a nightclub as they walk past? Or, if they lived on a wheat field in Nebraska in 1975, what would that sound like? The wind rushing through the wheat, an endless drone of insects and perhaps a plane flying overhead once in a blue moon? A soundscape playlist can give you a sense of what it’s like to sit in your character’s world with nothing but their thoughts.
You could choose songs (or sounds) that you feel emotively inform the character, or even music that now resonates differently with you as an actor/person. Maybe you’ll find a song with one particular lyric that never resonated with you before, but now it hits you like a lightning bolt. Save that song and whack it in the playlist. Whatever helps you along in the process!
24. Animal work.
The last on the list, but certainly not the least. Animal work is one of those things that never ceases to bring me back to the point of what we do. It’s creative! If animal work for you makes sense as:
‘If my character were an animal, they’d be a snake because they are sneaky’.
That’s great! I’m definitely not going to stop you from doing that, but I reckon there’s a lot of untapped potential to be had using animal work for deeper character development. I find it really useful to ask the following questions: ‘If my character were to morph into multiple animals for each their personality characteristics, which animals would they pass off best as?’ I find this a great way to start, as it usually opens my mind up to a few options rather than sticking to just one.
Every single animal has its own unique way of moving, way of seeing the world, social capabilities, survival skills, hunting tactics and, if it’s a pack animal, its own social standing in the pecking order. And the idea here is it could be a personality trait, gaze, physical gesture, or way of getting from point A to point B that could inform your character from the movement signature and personality of the animal. You don’t have to spend an entire week physically pretending to be that particular animal to get a grasp of how it could help your character development, but you can use it as a more abstract approach to how you find your way in and out of character, how they relate to others, or how they respond to provocation.
Anthony Hopkins famously used a tarantula to inform his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Marlon Brando used various apes as inspiration for his work in A Streetcar Named Desire, Jake Gyllenhaal took inspiration from a coyote for his work in Nightcrawler (that definitely came through strong) and Jim Carrey used “The smart bird at the end of the pond.” for his work in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
Whether you use a macro or micro approach, don’t underestimate the power of all creatures—great and small—as inspiration for a character.
Wow. That was a flippin’ lot of stuff and I’m sure as hell there’s even more that can be added to this list. But remember: there is no definitive way to do what you do, and you’ve probably already got your own process already. That said, I feel that being rigorous with the process of developing a character helps me know exactly where the character ends and I begin. Not only in how I get into character, but also how I get out of it. The lines can get somewhat blurred when I’m less thorough and that’s never a place I want to be.
Above all, it’s a sensational and fortunate thing to get up on stage or in front of a camera—so leave no stone unturned in the curious pursuit of discovering who this character could possibly be. Stay curious, stay creative, get off book and, most of all, have fun!