What is the spine of a character and is it important that the director and actor agree on what it is?

– Posted in: Directing Performance

In this post, we’ll explore the relationship between the actor and the director as it pertains to the spine of a character.

My goals for this post are:

  • Define what a super-objective is and include examples.
  • Help directors & new actors understand the power of a super-objective.
  • Help directors & actors use a super-objective as the foundation for making directorial and acting choices.

The “spine” is often referred to as the character’s super-objective. It is the strongest, most consistent desire the character has. It’s called the “spine” because it runs through their entire being. It flavors every choice they make with authenticity.

This is often a result of something that is absent in the character’s life. Something so important, they are always working to find and obtain it.

I know of a guy who only had an eighth-grade education. What do you think his super-objective (or life objective) was?

He is actually very smart in a self-taught way. He went on to achieve reasonable success and make a good living. The problem was he always had a chip on his shoulder. This was especially prevalent when a “college-smart” person disagreed with his thinking and decided to voice their disagreement.

People who knew this guy could predict when a conversation was about to get ugly.

The right person, the right ingredients and the right trigger would always produce a blow up.

This is dreadful for the real person, but it’s great for characters and stories!

The super-objective for someone playing this guy could be:

  1. “I’ll show them I’m smart”
  2. “I’ll prove them all wrong”
  3. “Hide my ignorance at all costs”
  4. “Be the smartest, most powerful guy in the room”

Each of these comes from a sense of feeling inadequate, right?

The first choice might be good for a quiet character, one who plots his or her way toward getting what they want. The fourth choice would be good for a character who is more bold and boastful. Both characters may have similar triggers, but how they react to them would be very different.

Real people become predictable by those who know them best because of this.

Getting any ideas on how you could use this? 

[bctt tweet=”What if the audience knows your character well-enough to predict how he or she will react?”]

You can use this to engage your audience.

These are tools you can use to make big or small performance changes. Determining opposing spines for each character can help create energy by creating tension between characters. The last thing we want is a cast of characters who are so similar that there is no tension.

Do the actor and the director need to agree on what the super-objective is? 

No. As long as the director is getting the performance he or she wants, it doesn’t matter if they agree or if they even know. The problem, and thus the opportunity, exists when the actor’s performance is lacking that certain something.

The fruit of this labor lives in the subtext.

People unconsciously recognize when someone has an agenda. Yes, if you’re aware you can see this consciously, but it’s more common for it to sneak up on us.

At one time or another we’ve all said, “There’s something about that guy, he’s got an agenda.” We can’t always name it, but we can usually feel it. An agenda can be the same as a super-objective. If you look close enough, it flavors most everything they do.

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Are super-objectives always a result of lack? 

No. A mentally-healthy person can feel so grateful for his or her good fortune that they have a strong need to help others. This flavors almost all of their interactions and may give them incredible drive. It can also be the reason they don’t like certain “selfish” people.

[bctt tweet=”Good actors are aware of who their character is and what their spine is.”]

The best actors embody this “spine.” All of their choices are influenced from this place because any other way would not be authentic to the character.

This leaves the director with the job of determining if these choices support the story and the character’s transformation. If they do, it’s wonderful. If they don’t, there may be a disconnect with the audience. The subtext won’t fit quite right.

Novice actors may not know how to embody a character’s spine.

If you find this out after they’ve been cast, you’ll need to help them explore. Don’t do this on-set or even during production.

This should be done over coffee, a beer or by having a more casual conversation during rehearsal. Talk about their character’s back-story and dig into what makes them who they are.

Don’t specifically tell the actor. Instead, be patient and help them discover it for themselves. A little hand holding may be needed at times.

[bctt tweet=”If you find yourself in need of filmmaking advice or would like a virtual mentor: Click here!”]

Got A Film Idea?

What do you do to find a character’s spine? Your insights would be helpful. Please leave a comment.