Maybe it’s because I have this facial recognition problem that makes it tough for me to tell the difference between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, but I don’t think fictional character is a question of faces. Or bodies. Or clothes. Or even actions, actually. Those things are important, but I’ve become pretty convinced that the hot beating heart of character is language. If you know how a character talks, you know how she thinks, and if you know how she thinks, you know how she acts.
This isn’t my idea. It’s the whole premise of theater. A play’s script is a record of spoken language. The task of those producing the play is to translate that language into character and scene. Sometimes there are stage directions, but stage directions are secondary. You can imagine performing a play stripped of its stage directions, but cut out the dialogue and you’ve got nothing.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Shakespeare, who was sparing with his stage directions and brilliant with his language. We can take, as one of the innumerable examples, the case of King Lear. We can look at how this horrible, tragic figure is built up from a series of syllables set on the page, one after the other.