24 Ways to Build a Character | The Acting Process
Build a character

24 Ways to Build a Character

Written by on | How-To Guides for Actors

Whether you’re on the hunt for a jumping off point, a quick something-something to add to your process, or have asked yourself such questions as: I present to you my holy grail list exercises, techniques, considerations and straight up questions you need to answer for yourself to build a character. These might help answer such questions as: ‘Who on earth is my character?’ ‘What the hell is going through my characters head in scene 25‘ and ‘What do I do with my hands?’ No fear actors, let’s just 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 whole process of what we do: 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 what that character had for breakfast, if they’re associated with a political party, and who they’ve third cousin is. I can’t help myself. 

There’s all the ABCs you’ve just gotta do on any given project that contains a script. An actor’s bread and butter. The text-mining. The analytical, heady, stuff that’s all about the script and the words: beating out a script, finding the units, knowing your keywords, knowing the themes, mapping out your story arc, figuring out who you’re talking to, your targets, what your character wants, what’s in their way, re looking up in the dictionary what—all that jazz.

They’re the….

 **((””Non-negotiables of our craft””(????))** 

 Dare I say.

 Oh, I dare. 

But when all that work’s 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

It almost seems too basic, but trust me here—every single time I underestimate how profoundly just having the theme of the story at the front of your mind informs your creative choices. It helps eliminate the things you don’t need and keeps you in the same story as everyone else you’re performing with. 

Everything goes back to that at the end of the day. What are the big ones? Death, power, money, corporate corruption, the pursuit of happiness, ambition, racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, the universal longing to belong. Just to name a few. Whatever the theme is, keep it at the forefront of everything you do, and 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 just get the character’s name. But 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 gives you vary wildly from the most in depth description of a character you’ve ever seen, or they may look like:

‘Sally. Works at the mechanics, how known Simon for three years. Suspicious. 26’

or even:

‘Woman—any age’

In terms of characterization, 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’ that means 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?

Alrighty, get your face back in that script and go through it with a fine toothed 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 be. 

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.

4. What Do Other Characters Say About Your Character?

Similar to the previous exercise, but now you’re only looking for what other characters are saying 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, and see how it could ultimately be a service or a disservice to the story.

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 characterization 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 accent queries, how realistic or stylized is the world of the play/film and how much do 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. I find this exercise really useful because as simplistic and obvious as it may seem it just outlines very clearly for me how enormous the space is between myself and my character. 

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?

Now 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 me understand the character on a human level. Every time I do this, it completely surprises me 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’re a few examples:

  • 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. 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 my character from. Or at least as much as I possibly can. Playing from a place of emotional judgement can result in instructing the audience to feel about them that same way you do. It’s you just play the character with all their faults as they’re written, 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 or subjected to that has made them who they are? Do I 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 characters 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 it simple and build on it as I go. Take Twelfth Night for example. I’ll write down something as basic as: this is him, this is her, she likes him, he likes someone else, that’s her uncle, he’s so and so’s brother, and this is so and so who works for this guy. 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, mate do a Venn diagram. 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. So you can get in there day one of rehearsal or shooting knowing the dynamics of each relationship and what it means for your character. 

10. What Is Your Character’s Relationship to the Targets 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’s Your Character’s Relationship to the World, the Universe and Beyond?

Going back to the lists of how you and your character relate to each other can help you with this. 

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 our 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 motivation and inner drive as the story develops? Some more things further things to question are:

  •     Have they always been told predominantly yes or not 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 need 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’s Your Character’s Accent?

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 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 accent and so the work is done and you won’t have to actively think about it when it’s time to go time. 

There’re so many secrets about a character that can reveal itself through accent. It’s not about playing the accent per se, but rather allowing it to perhaps reveal some of the characters past to you.

An accent indicates so much more about the voice than geographical origins. If you have access to this sort of information about your character consider how their accent 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.
  •     Did they grow 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 accent don’t need to be commented on or pressed onto your audience. This sort of investigative work and considerations are 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 accent can define or not 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?
  •     Where do they lead from predominantly in their body?
  •     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, distill 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 and how much that affects 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 tick 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.

What does your character hold in their hands, and how does that inform the 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? More on this when we talk about props. 

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 it explained expertly in our article on what exactly is an Inner Monologue

But exactly how much your inner monologue influences your character development is huge. It allows you to take everything you know about your character’s past, present and future wants, needs and desires and distill it into your characters entire inner life. It informs your characters 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.

In short, I think creating a solid inner monologue for your character is an awesome thing. It ensures the ever present running commentary going on in your own inner world is related to your characters wants and needs within the scene. 

16. Stan the Man’s 3 Psychic Movers: Mind, Will, and Feelings.

What does your character give a shit about or not give a shit about? What exactly propels your character forward? Stanislavski distills 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) sparks images in my mind. This then creates a by-product of emotion which then propels me forward into the next line, or into an action for the next mark I need to hit. 

Identify what these ignition words, sentences or actions are that then 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 that you’ve gotta get to and weave around down the hill for your character.

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 back stories you could possibly imagine. And nobody can stop me. Nobody! Whatever the writer hasn’t already given me about the character’s past then I just go ahead and fill in the rest. Get all ‘Who Do you Think You Are?’ and ‘This is Your Life’ on that shit. 

Decide everything about them that makes the story make sense for you, and gives you a whole person to play. Write it all down! Or better yet, get a friend to do a hot seat interview with you and just improvise it! Decide where they were born, who their parents are, who their second cousin is, why they stabbed someone in a Kmart car park in 2012, and what that has to do with your character’s decision to buy 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 deeds they’ve done, the 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 as a person at the time you’re portraying them. And for me it also just makes the whole thing 100 times fun-er.

18. Diary Entries

If back story isn’t your thing, or let’s say the writer has given you a really 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 day to day leading up to the story, of the days that are in the story, and even interestingly the days after the story. That’s if you want go real hardcore with this exercise. But my approach to character work is this: if the exercise helps you, and it makes your work more detailed and multifaceted then why the hell not? Do as many diary entries as you want. Make this character unique and make them yours.

Writing character diary entries really helps me differentiate my character’s social and private identity. This diary entry exercise could really help you find if there’s a significant tonal shift between the two and then if so, take note of what it sounds and feels like.

19. Your Character’s Clothing

You can do all the backstory, diary entry writing, inner monologue work,  physical exploration of how the character moves in space, understanding motivation, identifying emotional triggers and key words and accent and inner motor and drive–and sometimes none of it is making any f*cking sense. Then you just put your character’s shoes on for the first time and you go “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, here she is.”

It can just be where the pockets are placed on your character’s jacket makes you hold your arms in a way that’s different to your own. Or how you have to pull your shoulders so far back that your shoulder blades are almost pinching together, and move with a certain command to ensure you’re wearing a 17th century dress like you’ve worn one every day of your life–and not letting it look like it’s wearing you. Or your shoes make you walk a certain way and the unevenness of the tread adds to the off kilter feeling your character feels within. The tight restrictive lines of badly tailored professional wear informing how trapped your character feels in their own life. How much does the weight of the crown on your head and the cape on your shoulders feel like the weight of responsibility over an entire nation of people–does it make you push your chest out, or does the weight of it curl your shoulders forward and push your chest down? And does this shift throughout the story? 

Sometimes, the clothes can do half the work for you if you let it. I wouldn’t suggest depending entirely on your character’s costumes 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 also don’t underestimate the power of the outside-in. Which brings me to … 

20. Props

There many things your character may need to hold in their hands that are integral to the story being told, and said objects will be usually written into the script, such as: a revealing letter, a cigarette, a pen, a key, a gun, a baby, a shovel, 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, 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, keys, a pen, my bag, detangling my hair, bits of paper, a lipstick–something! 

How does your character hold a lighter, a pen, a book, a necklace around their neck, a drink, a phone, or a knife? 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 more often than not–what is it revealing about their inner life? 

These are all great things to experiment with in your character development and see what opportunities a prop presents to you throughout a scene. Use what’s around you, bring in options if you’re working in a space that allows it and have fun with your exploration of it. But remember, always make sure you link your discoveries back to the story and see how they aid you in your telling of it.

21. Archetypes

Archetypes 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 tricky sometimes, particularly if you’re not given a whole lot to work with in the text. 

But more than anything, 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 a blend of multiple?

Everyone is a complex blend of archetypes all the time shifting and changing somewhat. 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 does that open for me and how does that help me understand my character’s powers and limitations in the scene, in the play, in 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. And it’s always a thrill and a joy to watch the actors establish their archetype, utilise it and fuck with it. And not only film and TV, but archetypes lend itself so well to so many great plays: 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–just to name a few.

22. Linklater’s Five P’s of Characterisation

Kristin Linklater’s entire approach to the 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 characterization. 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 just dragging out an old exercise book (or scribbling these on the back of my script) and answering these five questions about my character/s before a rehearsal a really valuable exercise. 

This exercise can shift your focus to see the character’s 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. And 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 last thing you need to inform your character, but other times it’s like finding the missing puzzle piece. 

 The world you’re immersing yourself in and learning about while portraying a character has a profound ability to make you see your whole world through a completely different lens. And I feel this can be the same with music. Some songs start to hit a bit different.

You could choose songs that you feel emotively informs the character, or even songs that now music resonate differently with you as a person. Or a song with just 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. It can vary from one song to a million, whatever helps you process!

If your character is from a different time or place, what music were people listening to at the time? 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 the non stop stream of beeping car horns, people yelling out of windows, music that spills out of a nightclub for 4 seconds as they walked past, jingles that play on the radio, or the low-fi hum of songs that play in the supermarket, the persistent drone of a dodgy old aircon unit? 

 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 characters world with nothing but their thoughts. Does your character sit in it on a daily basis, or do they have to resist it?

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? 

Listening to music can sometimes be the last thing you need for the character you’re building, but other times it’s like finding the missing puzzle piece. A solid playlist can unlock an entire side of your character that can lift them off the page and help you understand their rhythms and the beat their whole life moves to, and how that informs the decisions they make throughout the story.

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! Our job is playing professional make believe for crying out loud! And it’s so much bloody fun! Lucky us for finding this work. Everyone has an endless tap of creativity within them to draw from. You’ve got it, I’ve got it, Rick across the road’s got it–we’ve all got it. If animal work for you makes sense as:

‘If my character were an animal, they’d be a snake because my character is 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 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 within its own group. And the idea here is it could be just 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 other characters, or how they respond to provocation.

Anthony Hopkins famously used a tarantula to inform his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Marlon Brando used various apes as inspiration for his work in 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. 

Whether you use a macro or micro approach, don’t underestimate the power of all creatures great and small as inspiration for a character. 


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! There could just be one thing on this list that piques your interest to muck around with next time you’ve got a character to build. 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 just 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. And 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!

About the Author

Emma O’Sullivan

Emma O’Sullivan is an actor, writer, juggler, frequent pasta maker and sometimes stilt walker. She graduated from WAAPA in 2016 with a BA Acting, and cut her teeth at the Hayman Theatre, Curtin University. Since graduating she has written and performed two solo shows at Perth, Newcastle and Sydney fringe and also with JackRabbit Theatre company. Originally from Perth, she is now based on the east coast and when you don’t see Em onstage you’ll find her practicing some *siq* new diabolo tricks and club juggling at park near you.

About the Author

Emma O’Sullivan

Emma O’Sullivan is an actor, writer, juggler, frequent pasta maker and sometimes stilt walker. She graduated from WAAPA in 2016 with a BA Acting, and cut her teeth at the Hayman Theatre, Curtin University. Since graduating she has written and performed two solo shows at Perth, Newcastle and Sydney fringe and also with JackRabbit Theatre company. Originally from Perth, she is now based on the east coast and when you don’t see Em onstage you’ll find her practicing some *siq* new diabolo tricks and club juggling at park near you.

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