Characterization: A thought from Sir Lawrence Olivier

Lawrence Olivier said the following about acting:

“If I play a beggar, I look for the king, and when I play a king, I find the beggar.”

This is wonderfully simple expression of how to approach an acting role that you’ve been awarded. In real life, there are no regal people or destitute people. There are people who act as if they are regal and other people who act as they are destitute.

Can you show me a king who doesn’t have his doubts? Can you show me a beggar who doesn’t have his moments of grandeur in his mind?

People are not cardboard – one dimensional beings. We all have vulnerabilities. We all have our grand moments. That’s what makes us human, and that’s what makes Olivier such the accomplished performer.

But his thoughts can also mean much to writers. To make well-rounded, believable characters we, too, need to find the beggar in the king.

Everyone has redeeming qualities. Even the bully. Even the pest. Even the murderer. The criminal. The adulterer. The dictator. No one starts out on the road to evil without passing a few moments of beauty along the way. So as you craft your villain or your antagonist or your whomever, make them real. Make them easy to like and easier to loathe. Bathe them in consistent contradictions. Have them be conflicted. Put them in situations which stretch their resolve. If you do, you’ll be on your way to crafting a believable, three-dimensional bad guy or girl.

Everyone has faults. Even the saint. Even the reverend. Even the … you get the picture. There’s no such thing as a hypocrite in real life (more on this later) because everyone fails, falls, stumbles, and makes mistakes. We’ve all seen writing where characters are too perfect. Who can relate to that? The “good guys or girls”, the heroes, the protagonists the whomever also must be bathed in contradictions. What gives them doubts? What causes them to do things they say they will never do? What drives them to a precipice they swore they would never reach? What hard things can they do which will steel their resolve? This is also the start of building a solid character whom your readers will be engaged with.

Thank you Sir Lawrence Olivier for a good reminder.

(And yes, that was a preposition ending a sentence. It’s fun making grammarians squirm.)

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