What I Learned From Acting: How to Make Characters People

If you ever want to learn how to make a character become a real, fleshed-out person, audition for a play. Become a character.

A few weeks ago, I auditioned for The Crucible on the spur of the moment and learned the following day that I had been cast as Giles

This is what I'm SUPPOSED to look like. Handsome, eh?

Corey, a combative 87-year-old man whose wife is arrested as a witch. He storms the courts in an attempt to save her life.

Never having acted in a play before, there was much to learn. But what I really wanted to figure out was how to make a character come to life. Set in Puritan times, we could not convey the characters as modern people, yet had to be relate-able to modern people. This created an interesting conflict.

Who is Giles Corey?

In the script, he’s almost daft, certainly crazy. I was an old man, yet I was 17. How could I act older, appear older? What might I think differently, being much, much older?

But what does he care about? BECOMING a character forces you to ask more questions. Therefore, even a minor character in a story has great internal conflicts. Giles is fiercely loyal and for that reason, dies by the end of the play. Yet he is frightened by death, angered by those who permit innocents to die.

When writing a novel, use some of these same questions to help make your characters more real. If it works for actors, it works for writers too.

1.) Understand the many facets of your character

Even if your character does something horrendous, perhaps he or she does it for a good reason. Even “evil” characters have qausi-good intentions at times. At one point during the play, I lunged at another man, screaming, “I’ll cut your throat, Putman! I’ll kill you yet!” While seemingly a deadly promise, consider that I scream this line at the man who just damned me to die. It’s understandable.

In your story, make sure to understand everything your character does and make sure it’s “in character.” Even if you don’t reveal these reasons in your story, you need to know them to keep your character consistent.

2.) Know your relationships

If you’re character is a cruel guy, maybe he’s not cruel to everyone. Nice people are not nice to everyone. Know how each character feels for the others. Are they jealous or respectful or resentful? Especially if characters are relation, figure out their family dynamic. Again, there’s no need to overtly explain this, but it’s safe to know how each character might react.

3.) Know what your character owns

This may sound weird, but it’s important to know what a character owns. His clothes. His possessions. Does he have a wallet or a money clip? Does he wear bowler caps or cowboy hats? What do these things say about him?

Know what sort of car he or she drives. Know how your character might decorate his or her bedroom/apartment. Know whether or not your character owns pets. Again, you don’t need to describe all of this, but know it.

One great trick I learned is to pick a single object of great importance to your character. Make the character own the possession. Whatever it is, this is distinctly this character’s possession. In The Crucible, Giles walks with a cane. The cane became a very important part of my character. I could use it in so many different ways to help show my emotion.

I might shake it at someone because I’m angry. I might rub the top nervously. I might spin it in my hands.

All of these visual cues can be translated into a story to represent what your character is feeling. After a number of times, the reader will understands that, “Giles stroked the cane, spinning it in his fingers” means “Giles was nervous.”

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These are all the pieces of advice I have at the moment, but take them into consideration to help your characters breathe. We justfinished the first weekend of performances. The last 3 start on this Friday. I have learned so much from acting in this play and will definitely blog about it later on in the week, because the people I’ve met are amazing. It has taught me a lot about character development and a lot about people.

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The Character Arc Corellation

You cannot write a good book without good characters. Compelling characters drive the plot of any novel, even those which are “plot-driven.” Because even in the midst of an alien invasion, you won’t really care about what happens unless you care about who it all happens to.

The thing about a novel is, a novel has no budget. It’s not like a Hollywood blockbuster that must use a set amount of funds. Well, perhaps people need budgets for marketing, but in plot terms, a writer can do whatever they’d like. The same stands true for characters.

The novel is a unique art form in that you can make whatever you’d like happen– in music, in films, the creators do not carry that same freedom. But to mold characters fully formed– realistic with flaws and contradictions and wide ranges of emotions– that’s a quite difficult task.

If a character can make you both laugh and cry, that may well be the gauge of how well you can relate to him or her. Relating to readers, however, relies on more than what most authors surmise. Many authors believe that by attributing quirky traits to characters, it helps their characters seem unique. That’s not true, though, unless this characteristic will play a crucial part in the story.

For example, in Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters, the narrator is missing the bottom half of her face. She’s an ex-model. In this way, a characteristic is more than just a characteristic, but an important plot point. This contradiction of what she used to be and what she now is demands the question of what occurred since then and now. In Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, the narrator speaks with a stammer; rather than be a simple characteristic, it helps propel the story.

A character, sure, might own a lot of cats, but that novel better have a lot to do with cats. If you give a character a huge scar across his face, you better explain what car accident or dark wizard gave him that scar. Don’t fall into Dickens syndrome, attributing exaggerated physical traits to characters with only stereotypical consequences. Those do not help us understand and sympathize the character; instead, we merely know that if she has a big nose, she is nosy.

People, though, are weird, jammed to the trachea with contradictions. Use that. Characters must act in the same way. Consider what makes the people you know unique. Their hobbies, their aspirations, their beliefs. These very real characteristics drawn from life contribute the motives behind which characters act.

To help a reader sympathize with a character, you need to make them go through Hell. I’m not going to care about a character for whom everything goes right– frustrate him and make him misunderstood. Make him suffer. Make him sometimes cruel. No one’s motivations are simple. Remember that.

What must be kept in mind is that characters must be fully developed. If I do not care about your characters, I will not care about your book. It doesn’t matter what happens to people that I feel I cannot care about. So, in writing stories, make sure you feel that you’re writing about real people. It will make your ability to reach people that much greater.