Tuesday, June 24, 2014

10 Ways to Get into Character

I believe that different kinds of storytellers have a lot to learn from each other. Novelists can help preachers. Comedians can help songwriters. And I think we should all be willing to ask each other for advice.
My sister Jo Jordan is an experienced stage actress and occasional gamer. I've asked her for advice about getting into character. She sent me a top ten list that I believe tabletop and live-action roleplayers should adapt to their games. [Comments in brackets below are my editorial.]

10 Ways to Get Into Character

By Jo Jordan

1.      Read the whole play. Twice.

This is the most important advice I can give. A successful show is one where the actors completely live in the world they create during the rehearsal process. Whether you’re the lead or an extra, your scenes are not the only important scenes or lines in the show. Every person involved in the show needs to know the whole shape of the show. Otherwise it can be a square peg round/round hole situation. No matter how well you know your lines or understand your scene, it will stick out like a sore thumb if it doesn’t fit with the rest of the show. [We may not have a script, but we have a game book and the other players' character sheets.]

2.      Write down every single fact mentioned about your character

This is the baseline of your character. Everything you have to know should be written within the pages of the script. It’s a little like solving a mystery. You have to find all the clues to your character and then put them together as a whole. [Do you know how your character and her background fit into the fiction of the game?]

3.      Write down facts implied about your character. Read between the lines

While everything you have to know about your character is written in the script, everything you want to know is written in-between the lines. Sometimes this can be the way another character reacts to yours. Other times it can be how your character reacts to someone else. Another way to extrapolate is to make decisions about the written facts. For example, is your character eating eggs and bacon this morning? Okay, now take it further. Does your character eat eggs and bacon every morning? Or is it a special breakfast? Does your character hate eggs and bacon and that’s what put her in a bad mood for the scene? All of these are plausible, acceptable inferences to make. The coolest thing is that you get to make those little decisions, even if they’re never addressed during the course of the show. [What has happened with other players during character creation or previous game sessions? What does that tell you about your character's normal, daily life?]

4.      Make choices about the subtext of your character's actions

This is another way of reading between the lines. This is one of your best tools. Your line might be, “No, thank you.” However, your subtext might be, “In what world could you possibly think that I would ever want to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on Tuesday?!” Subtext is a way to say what you want within the constraint of your lines. A single line can have the meaning and power of a monologue if you take the time to discover and explore all the subtext of your lines.

5.     Recognize similarities between you and your character

One great way to get into character is to make a list of all the ways you and your character are alike. Similarities can become the subconscious of your character because once you figure them out you don’t have to focus on them so much. For example, if you are right-handed, and so is your character, you can accept and disregard it. It isn’t a facet of your character that you have to learn; it is just something you know.

6.      Recognize differences, too

On the opposite side, differences can help you get into character, too. These are the conscious side of your character. Especially if your character has a limp or a stutter and you don’t. Becoming you character can take a considerable amount of work until you master that limp or stutter, but it can also be the most important characteristic to portray.

7.      Your character is always right

Villain or hero, your character always believes in themselves and believes what they are doing is justified. Take Loki in the Avengers. He absolutely believes his actions are justified. If you were to play him in such a way that shows you personally disagree with his actions, the character wouldn’t come across as honest or could come across as weak. Believe in your character more than your character believes in himself.

8.      Behave honestly under unreal circumstances

Let’s face it; the world of acting is not particularly real. That’s why it is called a play! But to truly get into character, it is extremely important to accept the unreal circumstances as reality and behave as honestly as possible within those conditions. This includes being madly in love with that gross boy from your history class or acting like a murderous drug dealer when nothing could be further from the truth. While the world of the play may not be the truth of reality, it is the truth of reality to your character.

9.      Anger is the weakest choice

Characters are emotional beings. You typically get to decide what emotions are brewing. A common directive is (she says angrily). In my opinion, this is a terrible directive. However, it can give you some leeway. Anger is a cover for a lot of emotions such as fear, loneliness, sadness, hurt, shame…the list goes on. My favorite choice for an angry directive is to choose two or three other emotions that could be driving the anger and play those instead. It still comes across as anger, but it is nuanced and subtle and much more honest.

10. Take your character for a spin in the real world

Once you’ve become comfortable with your character, take her out in the real world for a spin. Try your accent on a barista. Use your limp at the grocery store. See how a complete stranger treats you when they don’t know it’s a character. This can be extremely informative to you. All of those real life experiences can inform and shape how you play your character within the context of the play, adding depth and breadth to her.


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