The very basics of building a character, with thanks to Stanislavsky

Konstantin (or Constantin) Stanislavsky was a pioneer in acting and directing. He was the man who popularized the current practice of believing what you do you on stage, and not just playing a character using external gestures and a loud voice (which was the practice for hundreds of years). He made psychological acting the norm, and his beliefs are the standard by which today’s actors act and directors direct.

I won’t waste your time with any more biographical information or how he impacted theater in the 20th century – there are literally thousands of websites and books and college classes dedicated to him (not to mention his own massive volumes of work). If you want more information, it’s easy to find.

What follows are six steps that I consider the very basics of building a character, adapted from the teachings of Stanislavsky. I give this to my students and actors when they are starting to build a character. If you’re an actor or director working on your first or second play and are looking for a place to start, hopefully this gets the juices flowing. Keep in mind that this should be used after the play has been chosen (obviously), and at least a full read through and walk through has been done. These steps are the first of many that will help bring the characters and play to life:

1.     An actor must understand the main idea of the play; he must see himself as part of a whole.


2.     A character’s lines will become alive if the actor has a purpose in saying them. In other words, you must understand not only what your character is saying, but also why.


3.     The role is ready when an actor knows exactly what the character does each moment on the stage and why he does it.


4.     An actor should learn to take material for his character from the life around him, from people he knows, or even from those he sees in the street and who leave and impression on him. Use your experiences and relationships as inspiration to help you build a believable character. Don’t be afraid to bring a piece of yourself into the role.


5.      “Careless pronunciation of sounds and syllables is the same as having a broken tooth, a damaged eye, or a cut ear.” Speak slowly and clearly.


6.     “Today, here, now.” – Forget about what happened on stage yesterday. Perform each scene as if is happening on the stage for the very first time.