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Dealing with Difficult Characters: 3 Tips for Success

Student actors are frequently cast into a role that is totally outside their comfort zone. They might have to portray someone completely different than themselves, with radically different beliefs or ethics. Characters often make actions that make actors cringe – anything from fighting onstage (when they’ve never picked up a sword in their life) to kissing someone (when they barely know their scene partner). Their character might be much older or younger than them, from a very different social class or background, or deal with problems that the student might have never even thought of.

Teachers, if you are working with students and you notice that they are having trouble dealing with difficult characters in class or in the show they’re working on, here are three tips that speak directly to students which can help alleviate their concerns.

Tip 1: Remember that you were cast into this role for a reason.

There are a multitude of reasons why your teacher or director cast you into the role you’re playing:

  • To challenge you.
  • To give you experience playing a character you don’t normally get to play.
  • To push you outside of your comfort zone.
  • To improve your acting skills.
  • To give you insights on a character that is very different from you.

Your teacher has faith in your skills; otherwise, they wouldn’t have cast you into the role. They feel you can handle it. Believe them!

Tip 2: Speak up — sooner, rather than later.

Talk to your teacher or director. If it’s something morally, ethically, or safety-wise that you have an issue with, you need to talk to your teacher immediately — preferably before you rehearse the scene. Be prepared to clearly express your concern, and why you’re concerned. It might be possible to make an accommodation – for example, if it’s a stage combat move that you feel unsafe doing, maybe the choreography could be changed to make it safer.

If what you’ve been asked to do is not morally objectionable or unsafe, just embarrassing to you – still speak up! If your teacher doesn’t know about your concerns, then they can’t do anything about it. If you wait too long to say anything, it will be too late. Your teacher may be able to adjust the scene, but know that they may not be able to, or won’t. You may have to suck it up and do it, or risk being removed from that particular scene or re-cast into a different role.

Tip 3: Your character is not “you.”

Remember: it’s called acting! Your job as an actor is to portray the character you’ve been cast to play. Remember that it’s not “YOU” up on stage, it’s “Romeo” or “Miss Jackson” or “Kate.” Separate yourself from your character. Your character is the one expressing their thoughts and completing the tasks that help them get closer to their goals, not you. Your friends and family coming to the show are not reacting to you, they are reacting to the situations your character is in.

Make a list with two columns. On one side, write your character’s name. On the other side, write your name. Under your character’s name, write down thoughts, traits, and actions that the character does. Then under your own name, write down how you would react if you were in the same situation, or your thoughts, traits, and actions in comparison to your character’s. Are they similar or different? Most likely, a challenging character will be different from you, and that’s the point!

Above all, be brave. There are so many people who wouldn’t even dream of walking out on a stage, let alone memorize lines, sing and dance, or have to do something embarrassing up there – in front of an audience, no less! In taking a drama class, auditioning for a play, or performing in a competition, you are an actor and you have already made a major achievement by putting yourself out there. So take the next step! Push yourself outside of your comfort zone, trust your skills, and (as Nike’s slogan says) “just do it!” Believe me, you will impress everyone with your dedicated performance!

Kerry Hishon is a director, actor, writer, and stage combatant located in London, Ontario, Canada. Visit her blog at

Click here to download a printable tip sheet for dealing with difficult characters, including an action step for each tip!
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