When you walk into a scene, when you respond to a neutral initiation the same way you always respond, it’s already too late. You can’t change your character too dramatically, or else you’ll bail on the scene. So you’re stuck. Stuck playing the same character you always play. Stuck in a sort of groundhog day scene where all of this has come before and you’re desperately trying to escape.
Character, in improv, is not something that just happens. Character is a choice. It requires effort. So if you’re not thinking about character before you initiate or respond to that first line, then you’re going to default to what’s easiest—playing yourself or playing your same old safety characters. So make the decision, before you walk into the scene, to consider character. Give yourself a gift.
How to Come Up With New Improv Characters
- Be the “you” inside your head. Outside, you live in your pretty, perfect, Instagram life. Inside, you’re a torrent of competing, manic emotions and paranoid thoughts. Choose to be that second person.
- Lead with an emotion. No matter what your scene partner says, respond with a big emotion—fear, sadness, anger, joy. Hold on to that for the entirety of the scene.
- Lead with a body part. Walk on with a limp. Or lead with your big toe. Or scrunch up the left side of your face. Changing your body changes how you feel, which changes who you are.
- Lead with an accent or voice. And don’t make it a joke or a bit. Give it your all and see how it makes you feel.
- Act someone else’s age. 15. 45. 95. Each age brings new challenges and a new perspective.
- Adopt a strong point of view. Enter the scene with a strong opinion about anything at all. Like that your character believes in ghosts. Or that your character loves math. Even if it’s totally irrelevant, even if it never comes up, it will affect how your character behaves.
- Be a fictional character. Harry Potter, Mario, or Jane Eyre. You know these characters and you know how they’d react given the situation.
- Embody an historical figure. Napoleon doesn’t struggle with the same issues or fears as someone living in the 21st century. So try his persona on for size—and don’t waste time explaining how he time-traveled into 2018.
- Be a celebrity. Cocky Kanye West or brilliant Neil Degrasse Tyson. You know these people. React like they would.
- Embody an object or animal. In improv, cats and toasters can talk and feel human emotions. Don’t miss your chance to play something totally weird.
- Choose an occupation. A doctor acts differently than a construction worker.
- Pick a hot topic (no, not the store). Climate change. The separation of powers. Guns. Choose a side of the debate and act like someone who truly believes it. Can you bring nuance to the character?
- Use the suggestion. What sort of setting does it inspire? Which of its characteristics can you embody? How does it make you feel?
- Write a character for yourself. Writing is one of the best ways to practice improv by yourself. So compose monologues. Write sketches. Perform in plays. Take those characters and bring them into your improv scenes. It’s not cheating anymore than it’s cheating to play your stock mom character.
- Now kiss. When you’ve exhausted these tips, try smashing two of them together. Pick an occupation and an historical figure—Napoleon the surgeon. Choose an age and hot topic—a 7 year old who is strongly in favor of the death penalty. That’s 105 additional ways to create improv characters for those counting at home.
While thinking about your character before you walk on stage might feel like “cheating,” it’s no different than walking on stage with your stock characters or with a pull from the Opening. After all, those are things you’ve thought of or tried before.
Improv is about support and giving gifts. And there’s nothing wrong with occasionally treating yourself. If you want to stop playing the same characters over and over again, you might have to.
If you liked this post, you’ll like my book Improv ABC: The A-Z Guide to Becoming an Unstoppable Improviser. Drop your email here to get two free chapters.