How to approach acting character development is not always covered in acting schools and is a question I get a lot, so I decided to write this quick online acting class on how to find your character and get in character. Below are acting tips on how to make a character your own, working from the “inside out” with character development exercises and from the “outside in” with an actor’s exploration of costumes, props, speech, dialects, gait and specific gestures.
Read this page to get started, then ask your questions or share your experiences and discoveries below. And don’t forget to read the answers to other actors’ questions at the bottom of this page to learn more about acting character development.
There’s really 4 stages to creating a role as an actor.
- Gather all the information the writer is giving you about your character.
- Understand your character by digesting all the information you have.
- Fill in the blanks the writer left up to your imagination, creating your character through acting research and exercises.
- Find your character’s energy so you can be in the moment as the character when acting.
1) Gathering the Facts
It all starts with the play (or screenplay). The story is your character’s reason for living and there are plenty of clues about character development in what your character does, says and wants.
Read the script without thinking about anything and write your first impressions on the character.
Read the script again, now looking for some answers to questions like…
“What is this story about?”
“What is the writer trying to say?”
“Where does my character fit in?”
Now read the script again as if you were a detective and your character was a suspect you really needed to understand. Good writers have a strong vision and you’ll find that they leave plenty of clues to help with your acting character development in the script.
See if you can find what your character’s super-objective is (what they want above all things). Look at their scenes in the script and try to find out what motivates them, what makes them tick, what frightens them, etc.
You can start your search with the 7 character questions:
Who am I? Where am I? When is this happening? What do I want? Why do I want this? How will I get it? What must I overcome?
Also write down any character descriptions in the script so you can start putting together a character bio. Research any background information you’re given (for example, if the character works in a factory, research what that’s like).
2) Digesting the facts
Now you know a lot more information about your character, but that doesn’t mean you can get in character. Once in a while, we just empathize with our characters organically because we feel we have a lot in common with them, but most of the time, we need to do work to connect with a role.
So the next step of acting character development is to start trying to understand our character. A great place to start is what Stanislavski called the magic if”…
“What if this was really happening to me?”
“How would that make me feel?”
Again, play detective by looking for things in your character that you connect with or at least that are “as if”. For example, let’s say your character is a factory worker who just lost his job. You may not relate to that at all, but you can imagine what it would be like for you to never be able to act again or not have the money to buy food.
What if my character is a villain?The most interesting acting character development has often been great actors playing bad guys. Find one good thing about your character and that can be enough. Or connect with their fear or their anger and that can be a road to understanding their motivations. Looking for that connection is the fun part of being an actor!
3) How to Find your Character by Filling In the Blanks
The third step of acting character development is the most creative one because you get to use your imagination to fill in the blanks left by the writer.
Pick up the character bio you started earlier and imagine what’s missing: social background, family history, education, dreams, hopes, love interests, fears, favorite sports, you name it. The more detailed you get with your bio, the deeper your actor character development will be.
Imagine what your character would wear, how they would walk, how they would speak (if they require an accent, you’ll have to work on that). Many acting exercises can help you find your character. You can use improvisation exercises, animal exercises or private moment exercises (see these acting techniques online acting classes for more information on different exercises).
Tough time getting in character?Experience the world as your character. Use public transports, go to a coffee shop or to the park as your character (only if you’re working on a socially acceptable character of course, and be ready to get out of character if needed!)
4) How to Find your Character’s Energy
Now you’ve done all this acting character development work, the trick is getting in character quickly when you do a scene or monologue so you can be in the moment as your character.
We’ve all heard the stories of great actors on set who just seem to turn on a switch and suddenly be in character.
How do they do it?
Well, if you worked hard on acting character development at home, all you need is that one gesture to make the switch. This is what Michael Chekhov’s calls the Psychological Gesture and it comes down to finding one gesture that connects you immediately to your role (you can read more about the Chekhov technique here).
This is not the only way to get into character quickly. Different acting schools teach different methods. Try them out and see what works for you. The idea is to have all your character development work serve you when you need it, so explore ways of getting in character and out of character promptly.
Have fun! Feel free to ask an acting character development question below, help others or move on to more online acting classes.
Questions about Character Development?
Get answers here!
If you have a question about acting character development, how to get into character or just want to share a good trick on how you approached a character you are working on, just fill out the form below to create an actor help page dedicated to your question. You will receive an e-mail as soon as your question is answered. Before filling out the form, check out the questions other visitors have asked at the bottom of this page, along with answers provided… and feel free to add comments to help others.