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Don’t Judge a Character

Recently, I started teaching my new Intro to Theater Arts class. One important facet of acting which has been reinforced with me lately is the idea that an actor should not  judge a character.

Think about it. When we see someone doing something bad, we tend to label him or her a “bad person.” Instant judgment. It makes total sense. A murderer has committed a crime against the moral standards that society has deemed to be acceptable. That fact in itself makes that person “bad”.

But as an actor, what happens immediately after you judge the character you are planning on playing? You have taken away the character’s main objective for doing what he or she has to do. Bad people don’t look at themselves as being bad. Far from it! They are merely doing what they think is necessary for their given circumstances.

I can see this in writing as well. In my novel “Beauty Rising”, Martin’s mother could certainly be looked on as a “bad person” for being so overbearing and abusive towards Martin and especially for what she does later in the novel. (no spoiler here)  But in her mind, everything she does is grandly justified. The situation compels her to act the way she does which, unfortunately, leaves a wake of destruction in its path. The consequences of her actions are not important to her, or at least she is willing to live with them because  her objectives, however misguided they may be, are the most important things for her. In other words, the stakes are high.

An actor chosen to play Martin’s mother would have to put aside all judgments and delve deep into her psyche to find the justification for her actions. Judging her up-front would only put up an unnecessary barrier making her true-being much less revealed in the final performance.

In this way, writing is similar to acting. A writer has to build in the necessary tension and obstacles, the necessary back-story and conflict in order for the character to be believable – this often means going to uncomfortable places, but I believe it is crucial in building a character that speaks authentically from the pages.

Readers can judge away!  Actors and writers don’t have that luxury.