5 Tips for Creating Character Relationships

Ok, so you’ve done the work: memorized your lines backwards and forwards, filled notebooks with your thoughts and backstory, answered the key questions “who am I and what do I want?” and have a good handle on the circumstances of the character before the scene begins, and you’re ready to hit the set with your authentic character.

But wait! Have you thought about the circumstances in the scene itself and the effect other characters and performances might have on your character’s situation? In the fast-paced world of film and television, the first day of shooting may find you in bed with a stranger – so strong choices must also be flexible choices. Here are a few tips from the experts about creating robust yet supple character choices that will lend truth to your performance, even in high-pressure situations.

1. Put Your Objective in Context

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“What do I want?” is one of Stanislavski’s questions to ask when approaching a scene.

Adding another dimension, ask yourself “How does my character want to make the other character feel?” We rarely walk around narrating our inner emotional life. Speech is an action and it most often emerges from what we want from a situation or person.

In thinking about your character’s objective, also think about the character playing opposite and their relationship to that objective: your needs from your lover are probably not the same as from your boss. Character relationship colors what you want and how you go about getting it.

2. Prepare to be Moved

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“Sanford Meisner On Acting” is one of the top recommended books to read if you plan on pursuing acting as a profession. “Never come into a scene empty” is perhaps its mantra, and in order to follow this advice, preparation is necessary. But preparation must be both strong and malleable so that choices can be made or confirmed in the moment. An actor must prepare a specific inner life for her character that then is moved and affected by the inner life of other actors’ performances – performances that may emerge spontaneously and must be reacted to instinctively.   

3. Use Your Imagination

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As Cathy Haase elaborates in her book Acting for Film, there is no such thing as a character without relationships. Some character relationships are “primal,” relating to familial bonds, while others are determined by the social hierarchy of the world he or she inhabits. When imagining a character’s inner life, add the spice of imagining their status with the other characters to understand how your character’s position and power (or lack of it) affects your choice of actions on a given line or phrase.

4. Get Involved

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Once on set, it is vital that you get out of your own head and involve yourself with the people around you. You must see your character and the characters inhabited by other actors as living human beings who have inner lives of their own. In his book “Irreverent Acting,” Eric Morris offers exercises to help you see what is in front of you — to see your fellow actors as if for the first time. This kind of active and curious seeing keeps your responses from being stiff, and your expressions from being glazed over by your own preoccupations.

5. Pay attention

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As this past NYFA Student Resources article suggests, focus and concentration are key to creating convincing characterizations. It is vital that you pay attention to what’s going on around you as well as to what’s going on inside you. Listening to your scene partner will not only keep you out of your sabotaging head, but it will help you deliver a performance that feels spontaneous and truthful.

How do you create living, breathing character relationships? Let us know in the comments below!

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