Making a Backstory Work for You
Developing a Character Biography That Will Actually Strengthen your Performance
At some point in her training, every actor will be asked to draft a backstory for the character she is working on. If inventing such a backstory is done with the right things in mind, it can be an extremely valuable and grounding exercise. Sadly, though, it is often undertaken without any sense of what makes a backstory actually useful for the actor, and it ends up being forgotten as soon as it is completed. I thought I would set out some principles that help make the the task of composing a character bio or backstory productive and stimulative of the actor’s imagination with regard to the role.
First of all, before you embark on inventing anything about the character’s past, it’s important to extract every single bit of information that you can from the script about what the character has experienced to date. You don’t know, upon setting out on working with a script and a role, what will prove important, so it’s important to capture everything that you can. Don’t dismiss anything as minutia or trivia.
It’s your job, as the actor, to serve the writer’s vision, so you want to be sure you have gleaned everything you can from what the writer has offered you in the text. The act of identifying and noting these things will help to trigger your imagination along productive lines. Also, dramatic writing depends on a rich relationship between what is obvious and foregrounded in a text, and what is included as apparent context or background. This means that often the finer details prove to be more important than they sometimes seem to be upon initial encounter. So it’s crucial to identify everything in the script that is pertinent to your character’s backstory and make note of it. Further, focus on what happened, not on what you perceive the character’s feelings to be. “Just the facts, ma’am” was the famous refrain from the fifties procedural Dragnet, and it serves as a good motto for the actor in studying the script: focus on what happened, not on attitudes and emotional states (except where such attitudes and emotional states contribute to actions taken and things that happened).
As you write these things out, be sure to do it from a first person perspective: “I moved to Los Angeles, where I met … and I started …” You want to start to see things from the perspective of the character, and writing in the first person will help you to do that.
It’s your job, as the actor, to serve the writer’s vision
Organise Information Chronologically
Once you have extracted everything you can about what happened to the character in the past and on what choices he or she has made, you’ll want to arrange these things in chronological order, as best you can. Often information emerges in a script in an order that is not chronological, and it’s important to put things in the order that “you”, as the character, experienced them, and not simply leave them in the order that you came upon them in reading the script. The exercise of doing this will actually help you develop a deeper, more intimate knowledge of these events.
If you’re working on a scene that happens in the middle of a script, then events depicted in the scenes in which the character appears that occur prior to the scene you are working on should be included in your account. Again, the act of summarising those events and integrating them into your narrative will strengthen your command of the character’s story and situation.
Look for Patterns
When you have extracted everything from the script that you can about the character’s past, and arranged it in chronological order as best you can, you should start to look for what I call “peaks and valleys”. These are events that are significant moments of personal triumph and defeat for the character you are working on. Moments of triumph are important because they give us a sense of what the character strives for and aspires to, and help us connect to that appetite in ourselves. Moments of defeat are important because they help us to see what the character feels she has been deprived of, that she will seek to recover in the scenes in which she appears. The more the past can be understood in terms of peaks and valleys, the more it will quicken our interest in the character’s quest, and deepen our empathy for her.
[Don’t] simply invent episodes or information for the sake of having a well-rounded character bio
Having done this, you may begin to get a sense of what kinds of things we might invent that will have a good chance of being truly relevant to our work on the role. There may be significant “peaks” that can be added to the narrative: a moment when a parent expressed pride in “you”, (the character). The beautiful beginning of a significant romantic relationship, or a moment when “you” stood on principle and emerged victorious. Similarly with “valleys”: a major heartbreak can be invented, or a betrayal by a trusted friend or romantic partner, or a public humiliation. We should look for these events to be connected somehow to the events of the script; if the script is a story of the search for romantic fulfilment, then past romantic successes and defeats will be valuable to explore. If it’s a story of political intrigue, then early awareness of injustice or its correction may be useful. The idea is to explore things that speak to the issues and experiences explored in the script, and not to simply invent episodes or information for the sake of having a well-rounded character bio.
The incidents that comprise the peaks and valleys, both the ones supplied by the writer and the ones that you invent, can be explored through a combination of daydreaming and journaling, so that the episodes in question become more specific and vivid, and begin to exist in your body as lived experience, and not simply as facts understood from reading a script. But that is a story for another day.
By developing a backstory on the strong foundation supplied by the script, and then by adding incidents that are relevant to the journey of the character and are packed with significance by virtue of being a “peak” or a “valley”, the actor can stimulate her imagination in fruitful ways and propel her into the work on the role.
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