Q: The discussion is around layering in character’s “tragic flaw” with sensory elements and behavior. The goal is to consciously integrate these elements, valuing both simplicity and endowing lots of life into the character.
When developing a character, we want duality. There’s an inner life that informs the character’s social personality.
It is interesting that you talk about the character’s “tragic flaw”. A tragic flaw is generally something that lives in our subconscious. The writer and the actor know the character’s tragic flaw, but the character doesn’t. However, the character’s behavior is dictated by it.
You may have no experience behaving the way the character does, yet the job is to find a way to identify with the behavior personally. Let’s use Lady Macbeth as an example and say her tragic flaw is blind ambition. In varying degrees, we all can connect to a feeling of ambition. Every actor has wanted something so badly they would sacrifice to get it. But to what extent do you need to turn up that feeling in yourself, for it be murderous like in the case of Lady Macbeth? She is willing to kill to be the Queen. What would you kill for? It is a challenging question, but in order to play Lady M, you must answer it. Perhaps you can use an “as if”. If someone were to come after your loved one, you would kill them before you would let them kill your loved one. Or maybe you can simply imagine a career opportunity you would kill for and see if that creates enough motivation to drive you forward. Once you create these personal stakes, you are in the territory of Lady Macbeth’s tragic flaw.
You have now created a new experience within. In a trained and relaxed instrument, experiences create sensation. You can then ask: what does this sensation make me want to do? Answering this question will lead to organic choices. Does it make you feel like smoking? Do you feel empowered, like you are on top, and this makes you look down at everyone around you? Does it make you puff up your chest? Speak a certain way? Do you want to wear men’s suits, or high heels? Keep a cat with you that you pet compulsively? Is it uncomfortable to the point where you want to drink alcohol all the time? Do you want to seduce everyone around you to keep your enemies closer? This is now the beginning of finding the organic behavior of the character- organic because it didn’t come from an idea, it came from a sensation.
If you have no way to connect to blind ambition that feels organic, an actor can also ask: if my character were an animal, what animal would she be? Then use your intuition to answer the question. Again, let’s look at Lady M. Would she be a cheetah? A black panther? A cougar? Then you study the animal’s gaze, rhythms of movement, pace, habits. Embodying an animal can also be a way to incorporate organic behavior.
But social behavior is only one dimension of a human being. Another aspect we develop is the inner life of the character.
The intimacy of the character (in-to -me- see), is how we create the unconscious mind of the character. If you experience blind ambition like Lady M., what do you need emotionally? What is guiding a person who would kill to get what they want? What is her unfulfilled need? Perhaps this character wasn’t seen or held by their parents in the way human beings need to be nurtured to develop empathy. One choice for her unfulfilled need is: to be seen, for example. When was a time in your life when you felt the need to be seen? You can connect to that experience emotionally and sensorially. This is the wound that the character hides with her personality. Only she isn’t conscious of it. She behaves out of blind ambition, only aware of what she wants and what she will do to get it. But the actor knows and is in contact with the sensation of the need.
Each character has these layers because all human beings have these layers. It will be necessary to create both the fundamental inner life and external life of the character with this depth of preparation. Then, you will have personalized the motivating forces of your character. Now you can let go and simply live in the moment, and your impulses will be free to express. This specific preparation lays the foundation for true inspiration.
“The main factor in any form of creativeness is the life of the human spirit, that of the actor and his part, their joint feelings and subconscious creation.”- Stanislavski
Please send your specific questions about the art of acting to [email protected] and Kymberly will respond to a different question each week! There are no invalid questions, as long as they pertain to your craft and life as an actor.
Kymberly Harris is an actor’s director. She specializes in character-driven stories, whether the genre is drama, comedy, thriller, or action. Her extensive experience as a method acting coach to professional actors of all ages has led actors to seek her out to direct them towards their best performances in film, television, and theatre projects.