Building Character

The biggest challenge for improvisers and actors when it comes to characterisation is to make the character both believable and playable at the same time.  The character must be believable, from the audience’s point of view. That means they must be able to accept that the character’s actions are well motivated and true to life. But the character must also be playable from the perspective of the actor.  The actor must be able to communicate what the character thinks and feels on the inside by making the character say and do things on the outside. To make the character playable, you need to know what it does, its actions. To make it believable, you need to know how it performs the actions, its attitude.

By looking at the 5 essential aspects of character building for actors, you can learn what the essential aspects are for building your own personal character: that which makes you your own unique self. It can provide you with a framework for behaving true to character, i.e. in line with your values and motivations. I t can also help you to know which outer actions will best communicate your inner life. The reverse is also true: it can help you evaluate your outer actions to see if they reflect who you are inside. It helps you to align your profession with your passion.

Actors need 5 essential ingredients to find the playable actions motivated by believable attitude.  We will use a play scenario to explain. Some years ago I was creating a story with students for high school learners. We wanted to explore the issues of peer pressure and pressure from parents and teachers to achieve. We chose to centre our story on a sports event at a typical South African high school (if such a thing exists). The event was a soccer game between the local school and their arch rivals. We wanted to come up with believable characters that can help the audience explore the themes of pressure from peers and parents, but the characters had to be easy to play, since we were working on a tight schedule.

Here are the 5 main ingredients for building character:coach

  • The function or occupation of the character refers to a collection of related activities.  These related activities do not necessarily indicate the ‘job’ of the character, but rather his role, or function. Examples of these from our story are: The over bearing father, the supportive coach, the ambitious team captain, the gangster and his sidekick.  For the occupation to be playable it must involve interaction with other characters. Such roles must also be archetypal because such characters are easily playable and immediately recognisable by the audience. Archetypal characters are those found over and over again in fairytales, myths and fables from all over the world.
  • The related activities that make up the function are called occupational activities. It is important to find as many occupational activities as possible to provide a wide range of options for the actor.  Some such activities for the over bearing father may be as follows: Walks up and down field, shouts orders to players, criticises son, boasts to friends, buys hotdogs, drinks coke, adjusts clothing, ignores wife, laughs too loudly, fights with referee.
  • The character chooses its occupation out of passion – a desire that moti­vates his activities.  The passion is a singular choice and will simplify the character enough to make it playable, yet provide sufficient depth to make him intriguing.  Fulfilment of the passion will bring final happiness to the character.   The passion should be a broad and obvious choice, it may even be unoriginal e.g. a need to be influential (coach) or to be worthy of authority (team captain).  The passion has a ‘back story’, a reason for its coming into being and although it is something the audience never sees – it motivates the character’s actions emotionally.
  • Primary Needs are those needs that most directly serve the attainment of the passion.  ist2_4741473-white-rapperA good primary need in terms of playability is one that calls to mind many occupational activities that could lead to its fulfilment.  The primary needs are all connected to the passion, which is the core desire.  E.g. if the passion is recognition, primary needs may be wealth, the need to be seen with the right people and the need for achievement on some level (gangster’s sidekick in the sports day scenario).
  • The last element flows directly from primary needs:  primary activities.  They are the activities that reveal the primary needs.  What would a gangster do on sports day at the school if just appearing rich, was a primary need?  He would be wearing a lot of ‘bling’ and the right brand of clothing, he would be buying food and drink for all his supporters, he would be belittling the guys who don’t have the right ‘gear’. There should be several primary activities for each primary need.
Function/occupation: Over bearing Father
Occ.  activities Primary activities Primary needs Passion
Walks up and down field, shouts orders to players, criticises son, boasts to friends, buys hotdogs, drinks coke, adjusts clothing, ignores wife, laughs too loudly, fights with referee. Walks up and down field, wears loud colours. laughs loudly

Boasts to friends shouts orders to players

Fights with referee., criticises son

To be seen and heard

To appear knowledgeable

For son to score goal

­­To be recognised as a good father
Actions Attitude

The needs and passion hang together to form a mini value system that motivates the character’s behaviour. For the ambitious team captain this may look as follows:

Supporting values (Primary needs)

These are means to an end.

Core value (passion)

This is an end value

Have good people skills

Motivate his team

Have knowledge of the rules

Respect the coach

Work hard

To win and prove his worth as leader

The function of this mini value system is to guide the actor so that she always knows what to do and how to do it believably. For actors who use a script, the mini value system helps her to say the words in a certain way and use her body to communicate the attitude with which she is saying those words. In the work of improvisation actors, the mini value system becomes even more significant. For an improviser, everything except the mini value system is uncertain. She has no text, she does not know who the others are going to play and she does not know what is going to happen next. The only thing she is sure of is her own characters’ attitude that will inform her reaction to what happens and the set of actions available to communicate that reaction. .It is her framework for every new situation and comment that comes her way. It ensures that no matter what happens, she responds in character.

Here lies the value of every person having a clear picture of their own value system. If you are not sure how to respond to what happens around you, or what choices to make, your value system can help you to react in character – true to yourself. However, it also works in reverse: if you have reacted impulsively or instinctively and your behaviour is questionable, it can be very useful to look at the values that motivated your behaviour. Identifying those values can help you to find less hurtful and less destructive ways of achieving the same goal. You may even discover that the value driving your actions is not part of who you would like to be and make a deep change so that your outer behaviour becomes more in line with who you want to be.

There are three more aspects of character that help to perform believable yet playable characters: fears, strengths and weaknesses. In fact, fears really just embody the opposite of the passion. The weakness is something in the character that works directly against the characters’ fulfilment of his passion. The strengths work to redeem the weakness. All three these aspects, therefore, simply tell an actor and an audience member more about the character’s passion. Typically these aspects of a character are personified by the other characters in the story. We will look at this again when we talk about character relationships.

Petro Janse van Vuuren

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