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The Essentials

Actor and drama school teacher Des Fleming shares his advice and practical exercises to help you create compelling characters.

Des Fleming hosted a brilliant workshop at our recent Open House event where he explained that bringing characters to life requires a process of exploration and investigation. Here, we summarise some of the valuable insights he shared with Spotlight members. Let’s take a look.

Get Under the Character’s Skin

Getting under the character’s skin comes down to work ethic. If you do your job as an actor, you’ll know the character better than anyone else.

Ask yourself about your character:

  • Who am I? * (this is probably the most important question)
  • Where am I? What meaning does this place have for me? Are there memories or fears associated with it?
  • What time of day is it?
  • What’s the date?
  • What’s the weather like?
  • What am I doing? Is it a professional or personal activity?
  • What am I wearing?
  • How old am I?
  • Who is here with me?
  • What is my social, cultural, religious, and socio-economic point of view?
  • What physical situation do I find myself in?

*Remember, it’s who am I? – not who are they?

If the play or sides don’t provide answers, use your own creativity to come up with logical answers. There should be logic that relates to the story. Don’t feel tempted to bring something to your character that has no bearing on the story – work with what you have.

Directors, producers, writers etc. want to work with the best talent and in this case, your talent is about your capacity to take the time to prepare efficiently.

Read Your Script. Read it Again. And Again.

It’s been said that Anthony Hopkins reads his script 200 times. Viola Davis has also talked openly about how she will read her script repeatedly. Take inspiration from them and get to know your script. Read it like a detective; mark anything that gives you an insight into who your character is.

Your goal is to be as specific as you can be; the more specific you are, the more freedom you’ll have when portraying your character.

Give Yourself the Freedom to Play

Be the character. Don’t play the character
Des Fleming

Being the character means having a lived experience – rather than a preconceived notion of who that character is. Be specific and avoid generalities and stereotypes at all costs.

There is a broad range of qualities to draw from when building a character. Think about your character’s qualities such as their:

  • Belief system(s)
  • Posture
  • Voice patterns
  • Behaviour pattern.
  • Emotional intelligence, or the lack of it
  • Likes and dislikes
  • Sexuality
  • Physicality
  • Personality

Part of this process is to discover those qualities in the materials available to you.

Know Your Character’s Place in the Scene

I worship at the altar of intention and obstacle. Somebody wants something, and something is standing in their way of getting it. They want the money, they want the girl, they want to get to Philadelphia. Then the obstacle to that has to be formidable, and the tactics they use to overcome that obstacle are what shows us the character.
Aaron Sorkin

To move deeper into your work, look at what happens to your character in the scene. Ask yourself:

  • Why am I in this particular scene?
  • What would be missing if I wasn’t in it?
  • What do I say about myself?
  • What do others say about me?
  • Are there any other relevant details I need to discover?

No two actors interpret a character in the same way. You’re given clues about your character and their point of view in the script, but ultimately, it’s up to you to flesh them out.

What’s Your Character’s Point of View?

Your character’s viewpoint of the world and their feelings and thoughts towards the events, people and objects in their life greatly influence their behaviour.

For example:

  • If your character is breaking a promise, how do you feel about it?
  • If they’re going overseas, what do you think about that?
  • What’s your political viewpoint?
  • What’s your point of view on someone you’re attracted to?
  • What’s your favourite flavour of ice cream?

Point of view is your character’s feelings or thoughts towards the events, people, and things in their life. Humans have views on everything in their life which can change depending on how we’re feeling, so having a specific point of view is an essential part of creating truthful characters.

Redefining Relationships

You have to define in every scene who the other character is to you emotionally and how that changes from scene to scene. This is called the redefinition of a relationship. As you read the script, keep asking yourself: Who are they to me now, emotionally.
Larry Moss, The Intent to Live

Be discerning about the information available to you in the script and remember that the other character is always the most important person – you want something from them, what is it?

Your Character’s Backstory

It’s important to remember that when you’re bringing a character to life, you’ll need to have an extensive autobiography of them – if your character knows it, you need to know it.

Sometimes we play characters with whom we don’t have a shared life experience, Let’s say you’re playing a murderer – that’s when we need to work harder than ever to justify their actions and portray them authentically.

To help you discover your characters truth, play out scenarios, such as:

  • I do that because… “I have a dull life and need attention.”
  • I have a dull life because… “I don’t apply myself.”
  • I don’t apply myself because… “My upbringing was controlled.”
  • My upbringing was controlled because… “I was mollycoddled.”
  • How does that make you feel?… “I have a lack of control in my life.”

Art provides medicine for the soul and is a crucial service to humanity. The actor’s job is to be in service to their character – and you now have some tools to do exactly that.

Further Reading:

  • The Outstanding Actor by Ken Rea
  • The Intent to Live: Achieving Your True Potential As An Actor by Larry Moss

This article was written from notes taken at Des Fleming’s ‘Character Building’ session at Spotlight’s Open House. If you’re a Spotlight member and would like to sign up for future events like this one, check your membership email settings to ensure you’ve opted into receiving our newsletters.

Des Fleming has been acting professionally for 30 years on stage and screen in the UK, Ireland and in Australia. He’s worked across multiple genres: drama, comedy, musical theatre, Shakespeare, sitcoms, feature films, short films, TV, movies, and soap operas and is very familiar with the audition process. Des teaches Acting for Camera at Mountview to undergrad and post-grad students. He also runs online workshops and a weekly in-person scene study class in London.

Visit Des’ website to find out more about his workshops and classes.

Photo Credit: SDI Productions / iStock