Five Essentials for Building a Character

by Ruth Kulerman

Happy elderly man

Do not think about character or emotions. Focusing on the words takes the pressure off an actor.

"I'm trying to become an actress but I can't seem to tap into my emotions. I'm having a problem 'becoming' a character. What can I do?"

First, let me qualify my answer: I was trained in London and by British coaches here in New York, which makes my approach to acting quite different from those who are trained in America. So this is just my approach.

1. Forget about "Character."
Forget about "character" and forget about your feelings. They will come later.

2. Study the Script.
Study the script carefully to discover the FACTS about your character. Are comments about you by other characters accurate? Biased? To answer, you have to study the script, not just brush through it for the story. Glean this information: age, looks, job, family, money, intelligence, education. Get as much character biography as you can from script. Try to stick with only the facts from the script.

3. Research the Character's World.
Research the character's world to determine where/when the events of the play occur (state, city, country, historical period). What is going on the fictitious world that the character inhabits?  How do real world historical events affect the world of the script?

Research real history to give you a richer background and to see how external reality affects/invades the world of the play.

4. Determine Income Level.
Determine the income level ('class') of the character. Theoretically, America is a classless society. NOT TRUE. Class level in America is determined by money and partly by education. This affects your character's biography. Close behind money and education come race and religion, which also greatly affect behavior.

5. Do More Research.
If the person is a serial killer, Google well-known serial killers. Substitute any word for "killer" and do the same: doctor, Indian chief, pizza man, CEO, college student.

With the biographical information you get a portrait that looks just like you but has a different name and family and background and a unique way of looking at the world.

What's Next?
Forget about it. WHY? Because you need the biography as a spring board to a better source of the character's "feelings."

You are jumping into the best source for character and feelings. The best path into the heart of the role: THE WORDS OF THE SCRIPT.

Now study each sentence the character says. Find the word in the sentence that carries the most emotion. It's the word that must be heard and understood. It carries the picture, the image, the thought, and the feelings to the audience (whether on stage or screen). That (or occasionally "those") word/s evoke and carry your own forgotten feelings. You don't have to dig for feelings. The words do your digging for you.

Say each sentence aloud. Don't act it. Just say it. Over and over. Gradually your intuition will lead you to the emotion carrying word/s, even if you weren't able to pick it out immediately. ALWAYS KEEP the important word in your mind. Don't let another word take over. Say that sentence aloud over and over until it starts to "say itself," not sounding like an actor who has memorized a line.

Do not blast the key word. Just add a touch of energy. If you make it too big your sentence will sound false. Say the sentence aloud and listen to the words. Try to learn to listen inside your head as you speak the words aloud. Inside-your-head listening is very different from the way we usually listen to ourselves.

Relate to the Words.
Let the words carry the meaning. The meaning will evoke from within you the emotions and lead you to the correct reading of the line. You will sound real when you focus on the words themselves, rather than on your feelings or your character.  Every word we speak carries with it emotions accumulated and associated with that word from the first time we heard it. Since many words have multiple meanings, chose one. Often it's best to select the possibility that carries the most interesting emotion.

I have played over a hundred "characters." Homicidal auntie, dying courtesan, loving wife, terrified peasant. Asking how I felt when frightened or telling me just to "act" never helped me! I am NOT Aunt Martha. But I do have the words the playwright gave her; therefore, I focus on them.

Say the words. Wrap them around you. They are your lifeguards. Trust the words. Trust your ability to say them. Trust your intuition and intelligence to select the appropriate and most interesting emotion evoked by the words.

It may take anywhere from ten minutes to ten months before this concept begins to make sense. But focusing on the words takes a lot of pressure off an actor. Do not think character. Do not think "tap into feelings."  Think WORDS. Knock, knock, tap, tap. Who's there? Just us words -- Your best friends!
Ruth Kulerman is an actress and coach, known for "The Off Season," "A Walk in the Dark," and "Satan Hates You." Her series of articles is copyright by Chad Gracia and ActorTips. All rights reserved.
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Reader Comments

Where can i find an acting agent. I live in Washington. But Im in california for quite some time. and Iv always wanted to be an actor. Thats been my life long dream. I know that I need an acting agent but i just dont know where to start. From my piont of view, I think i can act. But i want to know what a real director thinks. Iv tooken some acting lesonss. And I was scamed once. How do i know thats not gone happpen again. I just cant take that risk any more. The only reason I got scamed was because i didnt know any thing about hte acting world back them. Until I read a book ab out acting. From that book I learned alot. Now I know that an actor is never ever suppostue pay up front.

Posted by Isaias (2010-07-05) 2628

homicidal auntie?
Arsenic and Old Lace?


Posted by Mitchell Fullerton (2009-03-30) 1224

Thank you for the comment. Greatly. By the end of the summer (hopefully sooner) I will have a new site just for my writing -- both articles and answers to questions. Google my name. You will find my coaching site and it undoubtedly will carry the link to the new writing site. Again, thank you for your support.

Posted by Ruth Kulerman (2008-05-18) 89

I love this message, I can really Feel what you are talking about and where you are coming from. Thanks!

Posted by Shocks (2008-02-27) 58

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