approaching a role - how to create characters

Before we dive in on how to prepare the role you’re embarking on, as a form of exercise, I would suggest you pick a script or a play you’re not familiar with. Something you don’t know much about. Read it and pick a character that interests you most, or you can take on a challenge of working on a role you’d normally avoid. Once you’ve decided on the part, we can begin looking closer at their story and start creating the character. 


Here’s a few ways you can approach breaking down the role. 


Natalie Portman starts off by creating a timeline for her character, a sketch that she will fill with more and more details after careful examination of the script. Start off by mapping out the events in a chronological order to understand when things happen. Then, pinpoint crucial moments of your character - where major shifts happen that reveal big changes for that character. Remember to focus only on the events that involve your role. This not only helps you zoom in on your part, but also to understand the entire story. 


During her first read, Helen Mirren will make notes of her first instinctive reactions to the character - anything that comes to her mind whilst reading the script, whether that refers to gestures, wardrobes, character traits. She also notes down the subtext of each line - be it a one line note, or a paragraph, making sure it’s very specific to that particular line. 


Next, you need to start asking questions and narrow down on your character’s goals. Even if the role is only few lines, make sure you know where your character is going. There are certain questions you should be asking in regards to your role:


  • How does the character see themselves?

  • How do other people see that character? Map out each person interacting in the story with your character and detail their attitude towards them.

  • How does the character think others see them?

  • How does the character want to be seen by them? 


These questions should help you form a rough idea of who your character is. Next step is creating the biography of them. Start asking these questions:


  • Where do they come from? 

  • Who are they? 

  • Why do they do what they do?

  • What past events have influenced them to act they way they do?

  • What do they want?

  • How will they go about getting it? 


It may help to create a short biography of yourself, to get an idea of how this process could work for a fictional character. If the character is based on a real person, make sure you thoroughly research their life before asking those same questions. 

You may find yourself playing someone you would normally judge very quickly. A villain who did a despicable thing. You must refrain yourself from judging them, otherwise it will block you from being able to analyse their character traits. A good villain is still someone that the audience can sympathise with, even though they may be disgusted at the things they’ve done in the story. Your job is to find an explanation to those actions and justify your character’s decisions. 


Now that you’ve focused on your character and have worked out who they are in detail, you can start analysing their relationships with those around them. Pin point who does your character deal with within the story and name those relationships. It will be different if it’s a teacher - student scenario than a friend and a friend situation. Analyse the dynamics of those relationships - are these good friends? Have they had a fall out? Has something happened to make them feel awkward around each other? The more detailed answers you can get, the more complicated and complex your character will be. 


The final step that might help you discover new nuances to your role will be a bit of improvisation with another actor. Be careful not to overdo it, and mostly have a play around with the text - see how it sounds, what can be found within how it’s read, what new ideas you can draw from that. You can improvise scenes before those ones in the script, or work on what might happen after it’s finished. Write down any interesting findings you might have.