What is Your Character’s Status and How Does it Affect Character Development?

StarWhat is the ‘status’ of your character? Understanding this is an important part of character development and the creation of a well-rounded, honest, and specific character. These days the word “status” often conjures up the mental image of a screen topped with a beaming selfie, decked out in friendly blue and white, and crammed with the clamoring lives of friends and acquaintances.

But when it comes to acting, the crafting of status requires a bit more thought than the daily updates cluttering your newsfeed. I’m referring, of course, to the other kind of status, the social and professional ranking of a character relative to his or her peers. Determining your character’s status is imperative to reconciling his or her worldview. But how to figure it out? To start with, we have to answer two essential questions.

  1. What are the different kinds of status?
    1. Societal—Arguably the most obvious is one’s social status. This refers to how important your character is perceived to be within his or her larger society. This can be determined by many factors, all of which depend on the values held by the character’s culture and social environment. For example, in America, wealth and profession play heavily into determining a person’s social status, as do beauty, charm, and talent.
    2. Professional—One’s professional status is certainly a shallower pool, but it can differ slightly from societal status. In the workplace such attributes as attractiveness and charisma might be overlooked in favor of aptitude or toadying. A vice president of a company might have high status within his place of work, but if that company is not generally well-respected, her social status will suffer.
    3. Familial—the intricacies of familial status have long been fodder for therapists. Your character’s place within his family structure will have been one of his earliest brushes with the concept of status, and therefore will have helped shape his personality. Oftentimes familial status will haunt a character through his adult life, so figuring it out is pretty important.
    4. Peer Group—Another example of an arena in which levels of status emerge in is one’s friend group. This is a microcosm of one’s status within a greater social structure. For example, the penultimate Star Trek nerd might not garner great respect in high school or in society, but amongst other Trekkies, or at related conventions, she walks tall. Status is a fluid structure that changes with company and environment.

Types of status are as endless as the factors determining them. The thing to remember is that it is human nature to attempt to impose rank and order, so in any given group of people, the nuances of status will assert themselves. It’s our job as actors to understand, establish, and portray them.

  1. How does one “play” status?
    1. Body language—Status lives in our bodies. Those of higher status tend to realize it physically. They hold themselves erect, move with confidence and purpose, are unafraid to make eye contact. (Characters of ultra-elevated status—your Kings and Queens, your CEOs, your super villains—might even come out the other side and eschew eye contact with perceived inferiors). Characters of lower status might strive to take up less room, slumping their shoulders, immediately ceding space to superiors, etc.
    2. Vocal choices—pitch, volume, dialect, all give clues as to the character’s social standing and status. Think of the status traditionally assumed of those speaking in a plummy British RP as opposed to an Eliza Doolittle-worthy Cockney.
    3. Pace—Pace, of the internal, physical and vocal varieties, is another subtle layer with which you can play. A common belief is that those in power—those with high status—may take a slower pace because they have no need to hurry. But personality and a million other factors also must be examined when finding your character’s pace, so your choice may be influenced by many facets of your character.
    4. Wardrobe—While an actor’s control over this often ends with the audition, it is worth remembering that “clothes make the man,” and play heavily into perception of status.
    5. Reactions to other characters—This is one of most readily apparent and crucial specifications. Status by its very nature is not a one-man game: it requires participation from everyone in the room, and indeed everyone in the world of the film, series, or play. The quickest way to communicate your character’s status to an audience is through her reactions to and treatment of her fellows. A rather obtuse example is the instinct to bow when a King appears. Modern daily reactions to status are often more subtle, but no less influential.

Status manifests in a myriad of ways, and is different for every character. Sometimes it is clearly assigned. (Think political rank in Game of Thrones, or Scandal). At other times status is a more minute game. (Think of all the tiny factors that play into conflicting levels of status on shows like The Office, or Parks and Recreation) Regardless, an awareness of status and a determination to craft that bit of the story can only serve you in the creation of a well-rounded, honest and specific character. And that, my actor friends, is a worthy pursuit.

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Rachel Rachel Frawley is an actor living in Atlanta. She holds a B.F.A. in Theatre from Michigan State University (with cognates in Music and Professional Writing) and is an Apprentice Company graduate from the Atlanta Shakespeare Co. She also works as an education artist for local theatres, which have included the Shakespeare Tavern and Aurora Theatre. For more information, visit her website at www.rachelfrawley.com