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How Do Actors Come Up With Wacky Characters?

We draw inspiration from real life. Truth IS stranger than fiction, especially where people are concerned.

"How did you come up with THAT?!" Usually (though not always) it's said as a compliment. And oftentimes, there's an interesting backstory, too. A weird situation or someone who is, as our mothers would say, a real character.

Actors are known to be keen observers of the human condition. Why not? There's some pretty entertaining stuff out there.

The same thing can be said of sales people or anyone else who deals regularly with the public. Way back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was an IT sales rep, I learned to "read the room" and attune myself to prospects and clients. It all helped to better understand where they were coming from (their pain points) and what they wanted or needed from me, so I could tailor a strong solution to their problem.

The difference as an artist is that I can now have fun with those foibles and use what I see in my work. That wouldn't have gone over too well in my buttoned-up business world, but as an actor - hoo boy! Some of these people can become the basis for rather memorable characters for film and TV. Just ask any actor - they'll tell you that at some point, they've "borrowed" an unusual way of speaking or behaving, probably exaggerating it a bit, and put it to work.

Don't let a difficult person get to you. File away their idiosyncracies and use them for full effect later. It's the best way to get even.

Room full of people in a real living room filming a scene for "Canton Abbey"
On set in a real living room!

The actor's inspiration: a self-described evil stepmother

I recently filmed a very funny scene for a new production called Canton Abbey. It's a parody of Downton Abbey, produced by my friend and talented British actress and voice actor Sarah Mitchell. The name of her company, Southern Fried Brits, tells you all you need to know: proper English decorum meets the deep South and all our uniquely American traditions. Tailgate parties, for example.

My character was originally written to be played by a rather stuffy corporate type, a man, but as we got to playing with her, she morphed into something much larger and wackier. Since the scene was to be played against the very proper British butler, and this WAS a comedy, the contrast of opposites was called in to play:

  • I'm rather short (5'3") and petite, while our butler, actor Jeffrey Bigger, is much taller and sturdier, yet my character was the one in charge.

  • My character thought she was quite proper, but was all too evidently demonstrative, looser and louder, and more unpredictable than our stiff and formal friend, the butler.

  • American brashness and arrogance was on display vs. the quieter and more disciplined British stiff upper lip.

I was inspired to change her voice, too, once I started thinking of similarities to my late stepmother-in-law. Ah, now she was a piece of work. This was the woman who at my wedding introduced herself to my parents and extended family and friends as "the evil stepmother." And then proceeded to get quite drunk at the reception.

Laura Doman as a pompous socialite stands next to Jeffrey Bigger in his role as a butler in "Canton Abbey."
You just can't get good help these days.

The character (wine and all)

There was a LOT to mine there. Her quasi-mid-Atlantic accent borrowed heavily from Katherine Hepburn movies. Her nose in the air as she looked down at the rest of us with more than a touch of self-importance and critical judgment. And always a glass of wine ... or something.

My character was more likeable than the inspiration. Still snooty, but well-meaning. She had a an earnest, pompous Frasier-like air of self-importance about her than any real vindictiveness. But the glass of wine stayed to kick off the scene with a little unscripted humor. After all, a little physical humor - underplayed - can be very effective.

I can't wait to see the finished product! Snippets promise that it'll be a real hoot. Hey - it IS set in the Deep South, y'all.

"The butler situation here in America is pathetic. People don't want to do hard work. They want (gasp) lunch breaks and consecutive vacation days." (shudder)

Laura's Quick Tips

  1. People are funny. Really.

  2. Keep your eyes and ears open for inspiration. It truly IS all around you.

  3. Humor comes from real truth brought to light.

Been bitten by the acting bug yourself? Find out how you can begin a professional acting career - even if it's only part-time - the smart way, learning about the industry and avoiding the scammers. Read more about it here >

Want help developing your on-camera confidence?

Laura Doman smiling

I'm Laura Doman, a former tech industry sales executive, hands-on mom, voice & TV/film actress, and improv performer. I create memorable characters that tell my client's stories, from the friendly CEO touting new upgrades to your sassy best gal pal dispensing some necessary, real-world advice...Let's Talk!


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