How to Create a Character from Real Life?

This post presents 5 guidelines actors can follow to explore the person behind the character they are playing.

-Ekalavya Dev

January 13, 2023

What makes an actor truly great?

Think of your favourite character from any movie, web series, or play you watched. Why do you think you remember that character the most? What aspects of a character makes it memorable for you? Was there something unique the actor did to bring that character to life?

An actor’s job is to bring characters to life – be it from a script or imagination. In this article, we will explore how we can create a character based on studying a real person.

  1. Pick your subject – For his role of Balram Halwai in The White Tiger, the DSM alum and BAFTA-nominated actor Adarsh Gourav washed dishes and ran errands for the owner of a food cart in Delhi to find his character. The first and obvious thing to do in character study is to pick who you are going to observe. This can be anyone – preferably someone you can observe regularly – from your sabziwallah, cook, maid, security guard, a friend, an acquaintance, etc. It is from these real-life sources that actors find character development ideas.
  2. Observe their physicality – For the first few days, observe them from afar. How do they move? How do they use their hands? Is there a specific physical quirk that catches your eye – e.g., the way they raise their eyebrows or the way they twitch their shoulder. It could be as small or big a movement as you like. How do they walk? Which part of their body leads their movement? Is the nose, the stomach, the eyes, the chest, or some other part?

Notice how this person sits and stands. Once you’ve done this, attempt to move like them, leading from the body parts they do. Practice how this person would walk leisurely versus if they were in a hurry. Move around as this person in different situations. For example, for the movie My Left Foot, actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays the role of a painter with cerebral palsy, famously insisted on being in a wheelchair when visiting restaurants, being lifted out of the wheelchair on set and more to remain in character. These are some of the tried-and-tested methods about how to get into character. Break a leg in someone else’s shoes.

  1. Talk to this person – How to build a character? There’s no one better to ask than a real-life equivalent of the character. Once you have a better understanding of your subject’s movements, spend some time engaging in a conversation with this person. This will help you understand what their voice sounds like, how to they speak, what are their speech patterns. Is there something they do physically when they talk? Notice their accent, the language they use, how do they use their mouth, their articulators? How do they talk when they are doing their work?
  2. Rehearsals – Now that you have a good understanding of your subject, it is time to improvise. See how you can embody their movement and voice in your body. Put yourself in different situations as this character – having lunch, walking back home, singing while washing clothes, the choices are endless. The more you play with your character in different situations and places, the better you will understand what kind of acting choices to make. How does this person express love and affection? How does this person experience intimacy, for example?
  1. Create a character history – As you spend more time playing this character, start creating their life stories, their back story, their values, the reasons they have these values, and improvise in different situations and scenarios.

To learn more about how to build characters, check out our ‘Art of Auditioning’ course with actor-director Maneesh Verma and ‘Breaking Open Characters’ with actor Puja Sarup.

Ekalavya: Act, Create, Communicate

India’s best online acting and theatre training platform, an initiative of Drama School Mumbai (DSM). DSM is one of the best acting and theatre schools in India. At Ekalavya, all the courses are designed and delivered by highly trained DSM faculty and industry professionals. Currently available courses are Breaking Open Characters, Mastering Monologues, Expressive Voice and Speech, Art of Auditioning and Expressive Body.

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