How to Make Good Improv Characters
These tips relate more to montage-based characters as opposed to long-form. Long-form characters present a whole new set of rules.
Here’s how to make good characters in your improv sets:
Here’s why you need these building blocks for your characters.
Pick an Emotion
I’m bored by okay improv sets where people start their sets with 20 seconds of thinking the following:
- Is my partner going to start?
- What should I do?
- Do I deserve to be out here?
- How many times have I started a scene?
- What’s my inspiration?
While you are mired in the technicalities of being a good person in your actual life, your audience is waiting for you to do something.
Within the first .2 seconds of you taking the stage, pick an emotion. Once you’ve picked that emotion, broadcast your emotion to your partner.
Note: Broadcasting your emotion does not mean yell. It does not mean be big and broad. It means be obvious about your emotion. Depending on what kind of set you are doing, you may not have time to be subtle. Make your emotion clear and concise.
Wondering how to broadcast those emotions? You can use some of the following:
- Physicalize — Are you playing an accordion? Figure out a way to play the accordion angrily. The more you can physicalize, the clearer your emotion will be to your partner(s) and the audience.
- Stage placement — Sadness = upstage because you are more vulnerable and might want to hide. Upstage can make you feel smaller and create more of a distance between you and the audience. Similarly, if you’re filled with bravado, you’ll be downstage center.
- Say it — “I’m happy!” That’s a great way to tell your partner and audience that you are happy. If you say it happily, people will believe you are happy. We’re not in the business of being clever; cleverness is a good perk, but your improv work should stand on its own without the addition of clever gravy on top.
Do More of That Emotion
You picked an emotion. Now look at what is going on in the first 3 seconds of your scene, then do more of that.
The audience does not care why you are happy. At least, at first. This is a REALLY difficult thing to grasp. As improvisers, we’re generating questions because we’re making this stuff up as we go along. Why am I happy? How do I know I’m really happy? What is my relationship to other things and am I happy about those other things? We feel a need to justify because we need to answer the questions and flesh out our characters.
While improvisers are busy trying to justify and flesh out, the audience sees a happy person. And they want to see the happy person be happy with things. Because the biggest question in their mind is, “What’s going to happen next?”
They don’t care about the backstory. They care about now.
Eric Idle is cheeky while Terry Jones is stern. We never find out why Eric Idle is cheeky until the end, when he delivers the final punchline and brings the sketch to completion.
React to Your Environment/Other Characters Within Your Emotion
By going on stage and being happy within your environment, you just gave the audience the context of why you were happy. Your reaction told the audience how to feel, which lets them know, “Oh, this character feels happy within this realm and that is normal.”
Context is critical for a viewer. When you’re doing improv, an audience member will often wonder what is going on. If you’re throwing a bunch of details into the mix, they won’t know what to focus on because they have no context of what is important. To get an audience to invest, you have to provide context of what is important.
Context is best provided by a player reacting to the environment in which they are in. Often, the context will interact with another person.
Let’s go back to the “Nudge Nudge” sketch. The context was provided by both characters sticking out their own emotional headspaces. From there, a relationship formed, providing the context in which these two characters will act out.
All established with, “Is your wife a go-er?…” “Beg your pardon?”
Context gets established incredibly fast. From there, your job as an improviser doing individual scenes isn’t to figure out why these characters are the way they are. Your job is to be happy and react happily to other things going on.
Note: The following instruction is an insanely easy way of heightening, which can be a heady instruction. Heighten just by doing more of the same, but a bit bigger. Don’t add more detail; stick to what has already been done, but do it more.
The simpler your scene is in terms of details and character, the easier it is for the audience to get invested.
There is always room for complexity in character, depth, but these are the base fundamentals for getting your characters to be interesting as fast as possible. You have so little time to make a difference to an audience, so make that time count.