Asking Characters Questions


The job of the actor is to analyze the text for action and then live truthfully and fully under the imaginary circumstances of the play.  To do the latter you must learn to recognize and act upon the truth of the moment, or that which is actually happening in the scene as you are playing it.  An actor can very easily set in his mind exactly how a scene should be played.  This is not the purpose of text analysis, nor is it desirable in terms of execution.  The difficulty of executing an action lies in dealing with that which is actually happening in the other person. You can’t execute your action in general; you must stay in tune with the responses you are receiving.  This requires a great deal of bravery due to the fact that you can never know exactly what is going to happen next.  You must learn to embrace the moment and act on it according to your objective.


Answer these questions for the other major character in your scene.  If you don’t know what the actual answer is, use your intuition and role playing ability and from what you do know project answers.

A. Who is the love in this person’s life?  Think about the emotions this person has in a relationship with which he or she is involved.  Limit your answer to a single choice.

B. What is this person fighting for?  What or who interferes with this subject accomplishing his or her goals.  Most of us don’t live for realities, but for dreams of what might be.  

C. What of special significance has happened to this person the year before, or if it’s more appropriate, what will happen to your subject within the next year?  

D. Describe the humor in this person’s life.  Often we alleviate the serious burdens of life by doing things that strike others as humorous (Hamlet has some hilarious lines).  Identify the sense of humor of your subject or something he or she does that strikes others as humorous.

E. What opposites exist in this person?  What fascinates us about other human beings are their inconsistencies (if there is love, there is bound to be hate too; if there is a great need for someone or something, there is a resentment of that need). 

F.  What kind of discovery is this person likely to make about himself or herself?  Is there some kind of a revelation your subject will have?  What is it?

G. How does this person affect someone with whom he or she is interacting?  Particularly with regard to someone the subject should care about.

H. What is the source of this person’s importance?  Reputations, money, power, title?  Answer that for your subject.   

I. With what place does the person have a close association?  It can be a geographic location, an office downtown or a summer cottage, or it can be a particular room in the house–a workshop in the basement, the kitchen, a couch in front of the TV…even a car.

J. What is intriguing about this person?  (When I think about my father, how similar we are and how different we are fascinate me.)

–Michael Shurtleff, Audition


 Before we do the fleshing out of these scenes, there’s something worth remembering.  Inexperienced writers are afraid they’re going to loose their audiences if they don’t hook them with the title and a gimmicky first line.  Give your audience credit for more intelligence than this.  Remember they’re not coming to this work critically, but with the hope that this is the story that will…go deeper in, take them further out… make them more of what they are.  It’s why we go to plays expectantly, despite the fact that most performances are disappointing. Why we read the next novel, though left unsatisfied by so many before.  We aren’t disappointed by tricks, but because a writer has squandered the opportunity to do so much more.

As you write, picture a person lovingly reading over your shoulder who wants more.  Who says, “I want to feel it just as you did, don’t rush through the details.  What was the temperature?  How did the light shine in through the window?  When she made that remark, did her expression change ever so subtly?  What is the reason these characters are here? What are their relationships?”  The scene, the characters are a means to express your and my fullest feelings, deeply and importantly.  Explore the richness of each possibility.”

Michael Shurtleff (Audition) notes that in everyday living we try to avoid or resolve conflict, but conflict is what creates drama.  Under the control of the written page we explore ramifications beyond everyday life.  It’s not enough to capture reality on the page.   We want heightened reality. The writer needs to find out what the characters in every scene are fighting for, to fully play out the opposites that exist within each character.  You have many creative choices in the selection of what you include and what you exclude.  Make choices that intensify real life drama.  Find romance; it’s everybody’s secret dream.  Whenever you have two conflicting personality traits that cancel each other out, do both.  Michael Shurtleff says, ” One of the great results of using opposites is behavior that is unpredictable, therefore always more intriguing to an audience.  It’s why people are forever astonishing us in life: we don’t know what they’re going to do next, they’re not consistent, and their doing something we didn’t expect is always surprising us.  Interesting acting always has this risk element of the unpredictable in it.  That’s why actors like Lawrence Oliver and Marlon Brando and DeNiro and Pachino interest us so; we never quite know what they’re going to do next.  They make us want to know.  They make us keep watching them.  They surprise us with their unpredictability.”

As a writer you need to supply these opposites, even if you don’t see them in your subject in real life.  What’s there is obvious.  It’s what is underneath the obvious that makes for interesting writing.

–John Lehman


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