Acting Out: Character Motivation and Behavior

Having trouble figuring out your character’s motivation?

Maybe, you should take an acting class. Yes, I’m serious. While it might seem more obvious to take a psych class or research human behavior, taking an acting class can be very helpful with writing when it comes to character motivation. That’s partly because of the way plays work.

When performing a play, each line of the play must be said as it is written (legally only  a small percentage can change). Actors and actresses have to say the same words in the same order as every other performance of the play, yet at the same time, their goal is to make this performance interesting and new. The main difference becomes how the words are said, which is directly related to why the words are said.

To do this, each actor has to choose what is motivating his/her character for the play and in each scene. The actor then uses that motivation as the basis for his/her actions (with most acting methods). If you decide that Queen Gertrude from Hamlet is a conniving manipulator out for power and riches, then every line would have to reflect that motivation. If in the same play, the actor for King Claudius decides that Claudius is hopelessly in love with Gertrude and completely ruled by her (including killing his brother at her order), then it becomes a very different play. Suddenly, Hamlet’s hesitation has a new flavor. The meaning of many lines would change without changing a word.

In an acting class, you will practice choosing motivations and using them to adjust character actions. That practice can help you decide what is motivating the characters in your books as well as how those motivations affect their actions. As a bonus, it can be pretty fun, too!


  1. I do concur! It really does help. As an actor and writer I’ve found that the one feeds directly into the other. It’s only since working on plays as an actor, approaching and interpreting the text with my character in mind and mining the text for clues, that I’ve come to understand more about how to write a play in the first place.


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