Writer, blogger, teaching artist and storyteller Stuart Nager kindly contributed a guest post for the letter Y. Stuart maintains a fiction blog called Talespinning and is also participating in the A to Z Challenge. Thank you Stuart!
“Yes And…”: Instant Character Building Through Improvisation
A good improviser knows that there are a few things that make an improvisational scene solid. One of the most important is to truly commit to the character, nailing the traits, and allowing said traits to grow with each offer given by his/her scene partners. Good character (and scene) development happens as you go along, accepting every situation and saying “Yes and…” to it. The rule of thumb is to not say “No” for the sake of saying No, but to build whatever conflict happens into the scene.
Normally done in a humorous vein, improvisation has, in the right hands, the chance to build dramatic tension that can lead to a very satisfying conclusion. In improv shows, a character is usually created on the spot and then, when the scene is over, left behind. Some performers (early Saturday Night Live players; Paul Ruebens) take their characters and develop them for future vehicles. Without improvisation, we would not have had Pee Wee Herman or some of the memorable characters from SNL.
As an Improvisation Coach/Teacher, one of sessions I enjoy leading are the Character Development classes. To not have one dimensional characters, to find the “truth” of a character, even if it is only “alive” for a few minutes, I find it is important that the students work on a number of levels: finding the nuances of physicality; the manner of speech; reaction to the setting (location; time period; time of day; etc); to whom they are speaking to, or, in the case of improvised monologues/soliloquies, all to have them really find that character’s voice.
Here’s an exercise I use for them to perform that I’m adapting for you, the writer. At the top of a piece of paper (or on your computer) write:
- Character name
- Character occupation
- Conflict that the character has to overcome (could just be his/her wants)
You should have no less than 12 emotions and probably stop around 20 or so. Next choose THREE of the emotions/states of being that are NOT related to one another. If you have someone in your household who can choose them for you, it would make it more challenging.
Now: write a monologue in that character’s voice, solving or stating the conflict/want/need, and you must use the three emotional tones in that monologue.
- Let it start, build, escalate, and descend, until you have a complete piece: beginning, middle and end all in one.
- The length of your monologue is up to you, btw.
I do strongly suggest that writers take some improv classes. Not for the performance angle but to assist in freeing themselves up. Improvisation allows you to explore with no mental limits. In this creative atmosphere, there is no wrong “answer.” If something falls flat, you know that there might be a stronger choice to make, and a good improv leader will help you to see that.