Acting isn’t just playing pretend. As an actor, you embody a key part of a show. Through your words and actions, you’ll move the story forward, play off other characters, and help convey the show’s themes. Empathetic, authentic performances also create emotional connections with the audience, allowing them to see characters not as roles in a play, but real-life people.

Your role in the show is a big responsibility! Here are four simple ways to bring your character to life.

Believable Characters in 4 Simple Steps

1. Read!
Read the whole script, cover to cover. Take notes about what your character does and (critically) what others say about them. If possible, do this before your production’s table read so you can hit the ground running. Here are other tips for reading through a play, including what elements you might focus on.

Your character study shouldn’t end when you’ve read your script or learned your blocking. As you’re learning lines, try different “takes.” Say your lines using different inflections, or processed through different emotions. This will open up new possibilities for your character (all subject, of course, to your director’s guidance).

2. Consider motivation
You might have heard the stereotypical, melodramatic actor ask “But what’s my motivation?” There’s truth in that trope, as cringeworthy as it may be. Actors need to understand their character’s wants and needs to make them believable.

Ask yourself what your character wants in each scene, and how they do or don’t get it as the action unfolds. Don’t just think about how you would feel and act—the key is getting inside the character’s head, and acting accordingly.

You should also think about how your character’s motivation might change throughout a scene. Maybe they entered the stage to get a snack from a refrigerator, but stayed after becoming interested in a conversation the other characters are having. Showing the different stages of that shift adds authenticity to your performance.

Lindsay Kujawa shares more tips for developing a character in this article. She suggests figuring out how a character’s internal emotions should be reflected externally in your action, as well as placing yourself in the character’s historical, social, political, cultural, religious and economic context. You might even complete creative exercises, like journaling, listening to a playlist inspired by the character, or creating a mood board.

3. Use your whole body
Always be aware of what your body is doing on stage, because the audience can see it. Little decisions can make or break an audience member’s immersion in the show. Any action that reminds them that the person on stage is you and not a character shatters the illusion.

Watch for any ticks or tendencies you might have, such as a repeated arm gesture or subconsciously swaying from side to side. (My wife, who’s been involved with theater for 20 years, calls the latter the “actor’s hula.”) Record and watch your performance. Does the character talk and move like you, or like your character? If you can’t be an objective judge of this, ask a trusted friend.

Here are some suggestions to involve your body in a positive way:

● Walk: Your character may strut into a scene, or tip-toe so lightly that they go unnoticed by other characters.

● Posture: Does your character slouch, or stand up straight? Consider factors like their self-confidence (both in general and in the scene), age and physical ability, occupation, and economic class.

● Arms: Are they crossed in frustration? Clenched behind the back, or placed on the hips? How expressive is your character with their hands while speaking?

● Sitting: Are legs crossed, or straight? If straight, how far apart are your feet?
Consider habits as well. Maybe your character is always fidgeting with something, or has a tendency to stroke his beard in thought. Involve your hair and costumes, too—a piece of hair that’s always in your face or clothes that look shabby, for example. Consult with your tech team.

Author’s note: Leaning into a character to this degree can be challenging. But the more you do, the less awkward and vulnerable you’ll feel. Start big and use those actions to make smaller changes to your body, thereby creating more realistic movements. Remember: you’re not doing these things—your character is!

4. Interact with the world of the show

You should be in character every second you’re on stage—including (and maybe especially) when your character isn’t the center of attention. A good actor knows the most important person on stage is everyone else. How does your character react to what’s being said in conversation. Or, if you’re meant to be in the background of a scene, how are you interacting with others or objects around you?

Though most of your movements and reactions will be prescribed (i.e., decided and rehearsed ahead of time), try to make them seem natural. You don’t want to remind the audience that you know how a scene unfolds ahead of time! Wait to respond until you hear or see something occur, rather than anticipating cues based on rehearsals. 

Andrew Koch is a writer and editor from Cincinnati. As a character-development exercise, he once attended a cast dinner as his character.

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