By Darren Held

Tricks to Creating Believable Characters

by Sonnjea Blackwell

Sometimes in improv classes, people get hung up on the idea of having a “character.” I know that was an issue for me for a while, since I don’t come from an acting background. But I’ve learned some tricks along the way that will help you have believable, grounded characters in your improv scenes.

Oh, would you like to hear them? All righty, then, here goes…

  • Know your character’s point of view (POV). You don’t have to get all actor-y and come up with a 70-page backstory for yourself. You just need to know a couple of things, and then let those things come out in your interaction with your scene partner: First, what’s the most important thing to this character? There’s no wrong answer – it’s your character, so it’s your choice. But you MUST make that choice in order for your character to be believable. Maybe the most important thing to this person is being accepted. Maybe it’s keeping children off their lawn. Maybe it’s cheese. Those are 3 silly options I thought of off the top of my head, and you can see that they would result in vastly different characters. Second, what does the character want from your scene partner RIGHT NOW? Forgiveness? Respect? Sex? Knowing what your character wants and what’s most important to them will help you react to your scene partner’s information, and will also help determine how you deal with whatever your “big what” is in this scene.

What? No, there’s no more. My “tricks to creating believable characters” is a very short list: Have a POV. Period.

Everything else can flesh out a character, but without a POV, you don’t have a character. I don’t care if you slouch, walk with a limp, talk in a British accent with a lisp and/or announce that you’re a lesbian – if you don’t know what’s important and what you want, you aren’t a character. You’re YOU with a slouch, a limp, a lispy British accent and a thing for flannel and mullets.

I’m not saying NOT to change your voice and your physicality – of course, you want to do that as well. I’m simply saying that that alone does NOT equal a “character.” If you know your POV first, you can let that influence your physical choices. Someone who’s uptight about their lawn will probably stand and speak differently from someone whose primary motivation in life is being accepted.

If you’re having trouble figuring out what’s the most important thing to your character, think of it this way: how do they see the world, and how do they see themselves in it? Is the world a big scary place, and they’re always on the losing end of things? In that case, the most important thing to them might be just not to get screwed over. That’s actually a really funny character – someone who doesn’t even HOPE to win… their biggest goal in life is simply not to get beat up TOO badly.

Anyway, I hope this gives you something to play with in your scenes. Don’t get too heady about it, though. Just make a choice, and play it out. Simple as that.