Acting Exercises Writers Can Use to Flesh Out Their Characters

Acting Exercises Writers Can Use to Flesh Out Their Characters

There are a whole host of things that can cause writer's block, but your characters don't have to be one of them.

If you consider creating and developing characters to be your writing Achilles' heel, you've come to the right place. You've probably come across dozens of exercises to help writers develop characters, but have you ever considered looking at exercises intended for actors and directors?

Actors have to know their characters inside and out. But guess what, before actors ever lay their eyes on a script, so do the writers!

Why is character-writing so important?

For one thing, story often comes from character. A crucial plot point can hinge on the question, “Would my character do this?” If you make your protagonist do something out-of-character that changes the direction of the entire story, it's going to throw the whole thing out of whack.

High-quality character writing makes for a high-quality story.

For another thing, readers and viewers connect with the story through the characters. If you write flat characters, there won't be anything for the audience to connect with, and they won't find the story as interesting.

Finally, and very importantly for screenwriters, interesting characters and dialogue attract the best acting talent to your projects. If you send out uninteresting character descriptions and weak dialogue sides for auditioning actors, you'll get fewer and less experienced actors showing up for casting.

How do you write interesting characters?

Now that you know how important it is to construct and develop well-written characters, how do you actually go about it?

One of the most frequent compliments I get for my writing is that my characters and dialogue are rich and memorable. I'm not claiming to be an expert, especially since I'm still relatively early in my career, but I will say this has been a consistent theme in my writing groups and classes pretty much from the beginning, so I feel comfortable offering information about a few methods that might be helpful for others.

Everyone has their own favorite method or set of methods they use to create and flesh out characters, to make sure they're complex, multi-faceted, and three-dimensional, so that when a reader comes across a character, they feel it could be a real person, or they think it was most likely based upon a real person.

I was talking with some friends recently about what methods we each use to flesh out characters, and everyone was surprised when I mentioned that I often use acting exercises.

Back in undergrad, I took an acting class with the intention of becoming a better director by knowing how actors do their craft. And in grad school, of course, I took a few directing classes. What I didn't know all that time was that the exercises I learned, with the intention of drawing wonderful performances out of actors, would also become some of my most valuable tools when I first began writing—for creating characters that were written richly in the first place—and subsequently making the actors' jobs easier and more fun.

Here are three acting exercises (somewhat modified for writers) that you can use to make your characters more multifaceted and memorable.

Write a Character Essay:

I'm not sure where this one originated. It's used widely by actors and directors in one form or another, is by far the most basic exercise I know, and remains one of my favorites.

The idea is this:

  • First, write about one page, single-spaced, of character description and backstory about the character. This can have as much or little detail as you like—and you don't necessarily have to know the whole story yet. Don't just write “Joe is a farmer” and let it go at that though; fill out the whole page.
  • Second, write about one more page, also single-spaced. But this time, write a monologue in-character, as the character you're writing about, describing themselves, their life, or just whatever you think would be helpful for you.

That's it. Surprisingly simple, yet enormously powerful.

Next, let's look at Uta Hagen (fair warning, Hagen is A LOT of homework!).

Uta Hagen's Six Steps + Nine questions (sort of):

Based on Konstantin Stanislavski's method, Hagen's approach sought to boil everything down in a more systematic way. Acting and directing teachers tend to tweak her questions and use them a bit less formally, and add sprinkles of Meisner & Mamet, but the first step is that in order to understand the character you first need to understand the story.

So, for the story as a whole, ask yourself:

  1. What is the story about at its core? What message, takeaway, or theme(s) are you trying to get across?
  2. What is the tone/genre of the script?
  3. Whose story is it (which character is your protagonist)?
  4. What are the basic circumstances of the story (what has happened to the character, what is happening, and what will happen)?
  5. What does your character want (overall or in general)?
  6. What does your character need (this is often the opposite of the want)?
  7. What is your character's arc (e.g. From: cowardly/lacking confidence To: courageous/confident)?
  8. What is the main tension of the story?
  9. What are the stakes of the story? (or for the protagonist, if you prefer)

Wait, wait! You're not done yet. There's more!

For a given scene, especially if it's a character introduction or a key scene, ask yourself:

1. Who is your character? Unlike in the script, you can be as specific and wordy as you like here (What do they look like? What are they wearing? How do they perceive themselves?).

2. What happened just before the scene began? (This can be unwritten backstory, but you as the writer should know it, as it informs character's actions.)

3. Whose scene is it?

4. What are the circumstances of the scene? Where is your character and what are they doing?

5. What do each of the characters in the scene want?

  • Character 1
  • Character 2, etc.

6. What is the obstacle to your character's want?

7. What does your character do to get what they want?

8. What is the main tension of the scene?

9. What are the characters' relationships? How do they each see the other characters (or inanimate objects, or recent events, if relevant) in the scene?

10. What is the arc of your character (or of your protagonist) in this scene? Is there a specific moment that acts as a turning point (there doesn't have to be, but it's worth considering)?

One of my teachers also liked to have us identify and count each narrative beat in a scene, and to make a note of what we want the audience to take away from the scene. If I'm being honest, I rarely do those things, but if you're new to writing or are badly stuck on a scene, dissecting it down for analysis could un-stick you.

Sanford Meisner Technique...ish:

Also based somewhat off of Stanislavski via Lee Strasberg, Meisner is often credited as inventing what became the basis for improv. Best used if writing in a team or group situation, and if you already have a first draft of the dialogue down in some form but need to refine it, this can involve repeating ideas or dialogue in different ways until they change and evolve spontaneously (or to find subtext), injecting physical actions during the repetition to add complexity, and building on each other's statements and responses (the precursor to “yes, and”). Basically, the idea is to act out moments and scenes in order to improvise changes and figure out what happens next in a spontaneous way without consciously thinking about it too much at first.

In common with many writing practices, Meisner also involves a research aspect that includes learning about or inventing a character's backstory, talking to people who have experiences in common with the character to gain insight, and trying to tap into what the character is feeling at each moment in order to "feel" them yourself and have the character act/speak according to those impulses. (By the way, need some help doing research?)

You can sort of do a version of this technique by yourself, by literally standing up and acting as all of the characters out loud, off the top of your head, and it can be a lot of fun, but I don't recommend it for those who like to write in coffee shops or other public places.

So, there you have it. If you already studied acting and/or directing, use those transferrable skills in your writing!

And don't be afraid to optimize the techniques and methods of others for your own use.

Now, get writing!

*Feature photo by cottonbro studio (Pexels)

Writing kids animation by day (TeamTO, Nickelodeon) and genre live-action by night, Hilary Van Hoose is also journalist and 2021 RespectAbility Lab Fellow with an MFA in Film & TV Production from USC.
More posts by Hilary Van Hoose.
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