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Creating Character(s) Truthfully

Creating a character is servicing the writer and transforming into a fully realized human being that is completely different from yourself. Not just a character — a human being. That’s what you’re creating. You’ve got to look at life

Viola Davis, Actress

When working with a student to create truthful characters, the first step is to remind them it is essential when they are performing to “live truthfully under the imaginary circumstances of their text.”

Having the student understand who the character they are portraying is the key to developing them physically and vocally. So, before they decide what their voice sounds like, how they move, how they gesture, or where their focal point is, they must know who the character is. We suggest you watch the performance of “Death of Innocence” by Iree Mann, Dramatic Interpretation, Second Place in 2018 and “Fresh Off the Boat” by John Duncan, Humorous Interpretation, Second Place and Interp Bowl Winner in 2019.

Researching who the person is and why they do what they do cannot happen in the student’s head apart from rehearsal. The research is in the doing.

Instruct your students to create a Biography for each person in their story—the more detailed the character’s BACKSTORY, the better. The backstory is a history or background, especially one created for a fictional character.

Character Analysis

Below are some character analysis activities, including “Combing the Text for Clues” and “Nine Questions.” After completing one or both, your students should write a Character Bio to help them bring their character(s) to life.

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Combing the Text for Clues

The first place to start is by combing the TEXT for Character Clues. We use the term “combing the text” to refer to the in-depth character analysis an interper must undertake to truly understand their character(s). The answers should be from the text, not made up in the interper’s imagination. What does the text say?

Person looking at info online
    • What does the author say about the character?
    • What the character says about themselves—be leery of liars.
    • What others say about the character—be leery of liars?
    • What do others think about the character?
    • How do others treat the character?
    • What the character does for a living, for a hobby, to unwind, to psych up?
    • What the character owns in terms of clothing, accessories, auto, dwelling furniture, etc.?
    • What the character dreams about—goals, acquisitions?
    • What the character associates with and avoids?
    • How does the character deal with conflict, confrontation, criticism?
    • How does the character relate to people?
    • How does the character feel in new situations?
    • How was the character raised—upbringing, environment?
    • What typical and/or unusual experiences the character went through?
    • How did the character emerge from these experiences?
    • What specific words the character chooses to use?

Once you have answered these questions, organize the information so it is usable:

  1.  Group the Clues into Identifiable Characteristics.
  2.  Find Major and Minor Character Traits.
  3. Note If, How, and When Characters Undergo Change.

Uta Hagan’s Nine Questions

Instead of using the Bio Questions above, your interper can answer Uta Hagen’s Nine Questions. Uta Hagen was a famous acting teacher and author of the book, Respect for Acting. These questions are designed to be answered in the first person (as their character) every time an interper creates a story. 

Who am I?

Answer in every sense of the question, including “Who am I now rather than in any other circumstances?”

Where am I?

Country, region, city, neighborhood, house, room, part of room. Why am I there?

What time is it?

Year, month, week, day, hour, minute. (Why?)

What surrounds me?

Include everything seen and unseen. Determine the importance of each thing.

What are the given circumstances?

Everything relevant that makes my situation-specific.

What are my relationships?

With self, all others in the play, with objects?

What do I want?

In the play, scene, beat, moment. (Or, in my life? This year? Today? This minute?)

What’s in my way?

External and internal (all obstacles.)

What do I do to get what I want?

In the play (my life), the scene (at present) this moment (right now.)

Write a Character Bio

With this activity, the student will employ some of the information learned from “Combing the Text” or “Nine Questions,” but now they might also need to FILL IN THE GAPS for their character’s information with their informed interpretation and ideas provided by the author.

  • Name (of character):
  • Sex:
  • Age:
  • Way Body is Used (weighted, loose, etc.):
  • Gestures:
  • Clothing:
  • Hair:
  • Footwear:
  • What parts of your body are important to you?
  • What is inside pockets, purse, change purse, and wallet? (choose one)
  • Inside the chest of drawers?
  • What are your relationships? (friends, lovers, enemies, etc.)
  • What has just happened?
  • What is going to happen?
  • Where are you?
  • What things if anything, do you have with you?
  • What two polarities describe you? (opposites)
  • Two action verbs that accurately state your character’s motivations:
  • Write a one-page biography of feelings from the character’s point of view. No facts, only motion, and emotion. Use lots of action verbs to describe the character’s feelings.

These questions opened up for me like rooms along a dim corridor, and these rooms possess doorways to other rooms.

Carol Shields, Unless (winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize)