Honor Thy Character

There’s an interesting lesson for writers in the American Film Institute interview with Dustin Hoffman, where he discusses preparing for his role as Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie. Before production began for Tootsie, screenwriter Murray Schisgal asked Hoffman to imagine, “If you were born a woman, how would you be different?” Hoffman had make-up artists work to turn him into a believable woman. But when their work was complete, he was discouraged to see that he could not be a classically beautiful woman. He had an epiphany at that point. As Dorothy, he felt like an interesting woman with much to offer. Yet he knew that in real life, Dorothy would lead a frustrated life and find herself ignored. So in throwing himself completely into this character, Hoffman says, “That was never a comedy for me.”

Similarly, a wise improv teacher of mine taught me to always believe in your characters, never disrespect or accuse them. And I think this is important for writers as well as actors to remember. When writing and and embodying characters, we need to honor them. We should never make fun of them or mistreat them. Sure, they will lead themselves into situations that will make them appear ridiculous. But the characters themselves must absolutely be believable. They will believe in the choices they are making. They will be people shaped by their characteristics and by circumstance. And the more real and believable they are, the more interesting they become.

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