Thursday, August 9, 2012

Things I Learned in Improv Class, Volume 4: Getting Into Character

What's improv comedy and why the heck am I writing about it? Check out the intro of Volume 1 and Volume 2.

TODAY'S LESSON: Getting into character

Before an improviser steps on stage, they make a decision about what character they will play. This can manifest itself in something obvious like an accent, or something more subtle, such as a shift in the way they walk, a tiny tick in their right hand, or a slight change in their breathing. 

The simple choices the actor makes about their character will dictate how the scene moves forward, and how their character will react to their partner's character.

Learning how to create a character: The walking game

Everybody leads with a different part of their body when they walk.  Don't believe me?  Sit on a park bench for a while and watch people walk by. You'll notice that very few people walk perfectly erect - they typically lead with one part of their body, and it varies from person to person.

Shifting the leading part of your body is a very simple way to make a physical transformation into a new character. 

Acting and improvising
That's me, getting into character during a rehearsal.
To practice, start by walking around the room. Once you're comfortable, shift your weight so that you are leading with your head.  You can do this either with a slight shift forward or an extreme shift forward, depending on how extreme you want your character to be.

Walk around like this for a while. How does it feel? 

Ask yourself the following questions:

1. What kind of person might walk like this?
2. Are they male or female?
3. What might their name be?
4. What kind of day do you think they are having?
5. How old are they?
6. Are they married? Single? Are they happy about this fact?
7. What do they do for a living?

Now try shifting your weight so that you are leading with your knees. How does walking like this feel different from leading with your head? Ask yourself the same questions as above. My guess is you will come up with very different answers.

Keep shifting your weight to different parts of your body - you nose, your chest, your shoulders, your toes, your hips.  Alter the extremity. Can you see how a slight change in the way you walk can create an entirely new character?

so what's this got to do with writing?

Whether it's a character on stage or a character in a book, they are made up of more than the words they say. How they feel and what they think affects everything they do, and using physicality is a simple way to demonstrate emotion and other character traits.  It's also an easy trick to help you avoid 'show versus tell' pitfalls.

How might a brave person walk? A shy person? An angry person? 

Instead of the dialogue tag 'he said angrily', how might you demonstrate that anger through the character's physicality? Through their actions?

Leverage more than words to create your characters - think about their movements, and use those actions to create rich characters that can live outside of the pages of your story.

Happy writing!


  1. Oh, I can just imagine getting caught doing this exercise in my living room! Sounds like a fun way to "research" characters.

  2. The Walk is a very key point for Animators (the Disney kind) in conveying character. So it only makes sense that writers would use the same vehicle to "show" our characters personality or how they feel. Thank you for the reminder!

  3. I never thought about the animator piece before, but that makes total sense, Elizabeth. Do you work in that field?

    It's a very fun way to research characters - my favorite is watching other people and identifying their lead body part. Fascinating!

    Thanks for your comments, everyone!