The Three-Fold Body: Thinking, Feeling, & Willing
Are you a Thinking, Feeling, or Willing person? Do you know how to tell the difference? How do you create a nuanced character psychology quickly and easily?
To break it down in the simplest of terms, when we are talking character, we are basically talking about three things: How and what does my character think? How does my character feel and express those feelings? What does my character want and how badly do they want it, in other words, their “will force”.
Think of yourself and how you go about your daily life. At any given moment, you are either feeling or expressing some emotion, thinking about something, or doing something or at least, wanting to do something. Often, you are doing these three things at the same time, but rarely are these three, let’s call them “psychological forces” working in perfect harmony with all three taking equal parts of our mental and physical energy. One of these forces is usually floating to the top, exerting more presence than the other two. As we develop, this begins to form a pattern and we begin to be regarded by others and by ourselves, at least subconsciously, as either a thinking person, a feeling person, or a willing person.
Chekhov felt that, generally speaking, each of these psychological forces reside or originated in different parts of our bodies and that we as actors can tap into these physical spaces of our person to find psychological attributes of our characters. He called this the actor’s three-fold body, the head, the chest, the hands, feet, and groin. So, by focusing on our heads we can tap into our thinking force, by focusing on our chests we can find our feeling energies, and by concentrating on our hands, feet, and groin, we can tap into the quality of willing.
And none of this should be particularly surprising or new when you think about it. Thinking people are called 'brains', 'eggheads', 'longhairs', or 'highbrow'. A Thinking person does not necessarily need to be particularly intelligent either. He or she could have their “head in the clouds” or be an “airhead”.
Feeling has, of course, long been associated with our hearts ('big hearted', 'soft hearted', 'open hearted', "loving with all of our hearts"). A particularly emotional person might “let their heart rule their head” or “wear their heart on their sleeve”. Feeling is also associated with our lungs or our breath. Someone might “take our breath away” or make us “breathless”. And our blood. We can be hot-blooded and warm-blooded. If we have no emotion, we might even be cold-blooded.
Willing is generally associated with our hands, feet, and groin. We might take a stand or stand one’s ground. We also might fight tooth and nail and reach for the moon or the stars. We also might gird our loins, fly by the seat of our pants, or shoot from the hip. We reach with our hands to grasp the things that we want. We use our feet to go where we want. We use our groin to…well, you get the idea.
As actors, we can use these locations in the body to find qualities of our character’s specific physicality and psychology. So, if we have a thinking character, the central driving force might originate or reside in the head. Our feeling character’s primary energy might reside in the chest and a willing character might lead from their hands, feet, groin, or some kind of combination of all three. I do want to add that this is a generalization and there are some exceptions to this which I will get into at a later point.
So, let’s try this. Walk around your space. Try not to think about anything at first, but just try to use a feeling of ease to get comfortable with just moving around. Sit down, stand up, pick up an item and look at it, put it down. Stuff like that.
Now I’d like you to become increasingly aware of your head. Let your head lead you through the space. You don’t have to force it or really make it look like your head is doing anything physically, but just let it take the driver seat as it were and move you and dictate your actions a bit. If you decide to change directions, let your head move first leading the rest of your body.
Note how this feels. Does this feel natural to you? Does it feel uncomfortable or foreign? Note this for yourself and when you feel you have discovered all you can for now, let your awareness of your head drift away so that now you are back to your normal state of being, your home state. Continue walking around your space.
Now, I invite you to focus your energy on your chest. Let your chest take you from place to place within the room you are in. Imagine that any movement you make originates from the chest and radiates through your body to your hands, feet, and head. Find an object in the room and work with it for a moment or two. Notice how your perception of the thing you are touching is different or similar to how you might normally perceive it. Make a note of any discoveries you have made and when you have done all that you feel you can do right now, let that chest energy drift away and return to your home state.
Finally, I invite you to focus your energy on your feet, hands, and groin. Begin to let all of your action originate from one of these three areas. Play around with letting your feet lead you through the space, then your hands, then your groin. Then use a combination of two or all of these areas. Note how each one feels similar or differently. Again, work with objects in the space. Sit, lie down, stand. Feel how this might be familiar or alien to you. When you are ready, let that drift away and come to rest.
How did that feel? Did you make any discoveries? Let me know in the comments.
My students often find one of these three psychological forces to be more familiar than the others. Often, when we are spying back after the exercise, they will say that they are thinking, feeling, or willing and the rest of the class will enthusiastically agree with them. Sometimes, they disagree though with the general consensus of the class or the answer may not be as obvious, so let’s move on to some more ways to discover whether you or your character are primarily thinking, feeling, or willing.
Listen to the words that you use most often. Without being aware of it, people and the characters actors play tend to use the words most closely associated with their primary psychological force. For instance, do you tend to say, “I think this” or “I think that”. For example, “I think you should listen to this.” “I think that you are awesome.” If you find yourself saying that pretty often, then chances are, you are primarily a thinking person.
A feeling person tends to go with “I feel”. “What do you feel like having for dinner?” “I feel like you never listen to me.” A willing person tends to say, “I want” or “I would” or another version of the verb “to be”. “I want to go out to eat tonight.” “I would like you to listen to this”
So, when one of my students says something like, “I feel like I’m primarily a thinking person.” Or “I think I’m a willing person.” Or “I’m definitely a feeling person.” Then, maybe that could indicate that they’re not quite what they think, feel, or declare themselves to be.
That being said, human beings tend to be far more nuanced and complex than our characters, and things can change by the hour, day, year, or decade so beware of using this as a definitive way to categorize you or your friends. Also, no person or character is 100% Thinking, Feeling, or Willing.
I think of it in terms of percentages. Maybe someone is 45% Willing, 35% Thinking, and 20% Feeling. Or maybe someone is pretty evenly distributed with maybe 40% Willing, 30% Feeling, and 30% Thinking. Or maybe someone is almost completely Thinking at 85% Thinking, 10% Willing, and 5% Feeling. Each of those might inspire a strong psychological image of who that person is and how they might behave in a given situation.
Someone who is 100% Thinking though is someone who has no desire to do anything and no feelings whatsoever. It’s really hard for me to imagine anyone like that (Maybe Mycroft Holmes from Sherlock Holmes). A 100% Feeling person with no will or thoughtfulness is also pretty hard for me to imagine. And someone who just does without thinking or feeling might be some kind of Terminator I suppose, so if you are playing a Terminator, there you are.
If you are still having trouble deciding on your character’s psychological force, then I recommend using Chekhov Guru, Leonard Petit’s slap test. In other words, imagine that your character has just been slapped. What is his or her first response? Do they go “Why did you do that?” (Thinker) “Do they go “That hurt” or cry or get angry. (Feeler) Do they slap back? (Willer).
Michael Chekhov recommends that we imagine our characters are in the room with us and simply ask them what they are. So, if you are doing the exercise we covered in our last video, that might be a great opportunity to ask your character this question. As actors, our well-developed imaginations are the most accurate source of information really, so don’t be afraid to use it to its fullest.
In any case, this is a good start in thinking of your character’s psychology, what makes them tick, what motivates them, and how they would behave in a given circumstance. In improv, this tool can be used to instantly create different characters as needed. In film, something as subtle, as focusing your energy through your hands or your heart (even if it’s not on camera) can be all you need to find the moment in the scene.
I mentioned before that these three areas of the body are generally where the three psychological forces can be found, but there are always exceptions. The earlobe or lips for example, while residing in the head center, are most definitely areas of feeling. The elbows and sternum might also be regarded as thinking zones and the chin and jowls might be regarded as willing places. In acting, specificity is king so imagining your character’s center in these specific places might inspire your imagination in different ways and help you find a unique and memorable characterization.
What do you think of all this? Does this help you? Do you have any questions about this? Please, please, please, don’t be afraid to ask me in the comments. I would definitely love to answer your questions and hear about your progress.
Until next time, I’ll see you guys later.