Is Your Character Stiff and Boring? Try This Acting Trick

29 03 2023

photo of fox sitting on ground
This fox is actually actor Daniel Day-Lewis. He lived on shrews for three months to get into character.
Photo by Alex Andrews on

This trick seems basic, but it’s helped me with character mannerisms and tone.

Usually I like to “cast” people I know as characters in my work, but lacking that, I try this trick.

Which animal best represents that character?

It’s one thing to describe a man as “bearish”. But it’s more effective to have that character jostle their way past furniture, or complain about the cold, rouse slowly to anger, enjoy naps, thump the table for emphasis, and have other bear-like behavior. Do they like picnics and the outdoors? Say, I need a reason to get outdoors for that one scene…

The more detail you can get for the scene or character, the more the motivations of the story will click into place.

Like I mentioned, this is an old trick actors use to find character. Anthony Hopkins famously used it in “Silence of the Lambs” when he considered Lector to be like a snake, and let that consideration guide Lector’s behavior. Check out a scene or two of “SotL” and that consideration becomes palm-to-forehead obvious. Hopkins’ choice of snake also led to iconic moments like Lector standing watchful as Starling first visits.

I wish I had examples from prose, because I dislike writing advice that uses examples from film. But the only other example I can think of is Ben Kingsley’s performance In “Sexy Beast” as goon Don Logan, which Kingsley had said was based on an abused dog. Please see that movie, because Logan is the Anti-Ghandi, the angriest human put on screen.

Does this technique ring any bells for you? Is there a prose character you know based on an animal?



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