On Building Character

When I was younger, my dad was incredibly strict. In order to play N64 for 30 minutes, I had to read for 30 minutes. If I didn’t get A’s or B’s, I couldn’t go out that weekend. If I didn’t chew with my mouth closed at the dinner table, I got a 10-minute lecture. He had high expectations. He raised his voice a lot.

But what I couldn’t understand was that, despite being sort of an asshole at home, my dad was wildly popular among his friends, especially the ladies. I couldn’t figure out what they saw in this douchey, stern man.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that we all have different personas, different character archetypes, we inhabit depending on the social situation.

For instance, there’s obnoxious improviser Ben, professional businessman Ben, quiet and overly-sarcastic family Ben, romantic boyfriend Ben, bro-y out with the guys Ben, and even self-deprecating writer Ben.

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And since we’re so good at automatically switching our persona based on context as it is, I often recommend that improvisers should just play themselves + 10%.

By putting yourself in the new context of a scene – perhaps a divorce, a job, or a talk with your kids – you are forced to respond in some new, interesting, and honest way, even if you’ve never experienced the situation in your actual life. Yet, since you’re still playing yourself, the scene still benefits from your grounded and realistic reactions. And then that extra 10% serves to heighten the action beyond what would be considered a “socially appropriate” response, which entertains the audience and gets you your laugh.

Plus, it’s a lot less work than asking for laughs by trying to be funny or playing some insane or overly-stereotypical character.

But of course, I can write all day and still never take my own advice. I feel as though in a lot of my scene work, I just play myself without adding that extra 10%. I end up responding exactly like Ben Noble would in any given situation, which doesn’t heighten the scene, and to be honest, isn’t all that much fun for me. I am Ben Noble every day of my life. I can react as me to all of my dumb choices off stage. Improv is my one opportunity to play, have fun, and explore without any consequences. It’s my time to paint with all the colors of the wind.

But at the top of a scene we can get so wrapped up in thinking about the suggestion or when to make the perfect edit, we forget to think about character, and we end up in a scene, with our arms crossed, just playing ourselves.

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So what are a few quick and easy ways to force yourself into a new character?

  • Physically change your posture: As you walk on stage, slump, lean in a weird way, alter your facial makeup. In general, how we position our body impacts our mood and state of mind. If you go to a party and cross your arms, you feel will more uncomfortable and antisocial than if you go to a party and keep your hands at your sides. So make an odd or irregular physical choice and let that inform your character. Standing tall with your shoulders back will make you feel like a confident businessman. Walking around with your head low and down may feel like a low-status, shy nerd. And all of this happens without much conscious thought.
  • Use the suggestion: Consider the suggestion and let some aspect of that object, occupation, or word inform your character. If the suggestion is “hammer,” you could be a construction worker, but you could also think that hammers are physically hard and made of steel, leading you towards a character that is a tough no-nonsense kind of guy.
  • Take on the point of view of someone you know well: Whether it’s a relative, partner, friend, or pop culture character, try to see the world as they would see it. My father is a stay-at-home dad, which gives him a different perspective on the world than my mother, a high-ranking businesswoman. Just be careful to follow the arc of the scene. If you stick too closely to that person’s actual character, you’ll end up in the same position as if you just played yourself in the first place. Boringgg.

Once you try a few new characters, chances are you’ll find something you like – whether that’s because the audience had a great reaction, because you had fun, or both. Add that character to your arsenal and bring him or her out when the time’s right.

UBC’s Amey Goerlich notes that it’s important to use those characters when you just want to kill it. They’re the characters you bring to an audition or that you bust out when you’re in a pickle and need something safe to play. But it’s also important to be a versatile player as well. By using your “safety characters” sparingly, you can broaden your arsenal and avoid locking yourself into being “the guy who only plays X or Y.”

You can also try bringing your “big guns” into a new context. For instance, my two safety characters are Jewish grandmother (high-status) and shy virgin (low-status). What happens when Jewish grandmother goes to traffic court (she is forced into being low-status) or when shy virgin’s younger brother asks about sex (he is forced into being high-status)?

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And remember, once you enter a scene with a character, you have to commit. Bailing on your character sells out the scene, which is a bigger sin than not doing a character at all.

Although we like to believe we know “the real us” or that we know what our friends are really like, in reality, we are each the sum-total of our many personas. We are constantly switching contexts, adding or subtracting different facets of our personality to calibrate to the social situation. At 10 years old, I didn’t understand that my dad could be stern, dad Dad at home, but flirty fashionista when he was out on the town. Now that I am flirty improviser out and about and then quiet jerk when I visit my parents, I finally understand why everyone likes my dad.

On stage, the audience appreciates honesty and realism. That’s why we experience some success when we play the vulnerable “us” that lives in our head. But we cannot always play that self-conscious, neurotic guy or girl. We have to place that person in different contexts, into different characters, and throw them into the fires of hell – forcing them to adapt and react to any situation we throw at them.