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by Darren Held

I’ve written about labels in improv before, but it’s been a little while and I have a new perspective on it today.

I always talk about labels being specific and, ideally, helping to identify a character and/or behavioral trait. Labels about looks are good, too, if we learn what that means to either of the characters. But something in class reminded me today that labels that define a character flaw, personality weakness or other shortcoming are perhaps the awesomest labels of all.

Not that all the characters in a scene will be a “loser” – but still, every character needs to have a flaw or something that humanizes them. The big, macho, arrogant guy is simply a bully… unless he has a weakness of his own. And those kinds of labels can be really specific as well. Maybe his favorite movie is Bambi (the Disney one, not some porn one), or maybe he is afraid of the dark, or maybe he’s always secretly wanted to be a ballerina.

Same thing with appearance. “Brunette” is a label, but it only tells us the person has brown hair. What does that mean? Once, I labeled myself as “reasonably attractive, in flattering light.” “Reasonably attractive” is an okay label, but sort of vague. “In flattering light” adds an extra layer of information – in this case, obvious insecurity – which gives the character something to work with. The fact that I labeled myself this way in a real-life conversation, not an improv scene, is completely irrelevant. My self esteem is fine, thank you very much.

Um. Yes. Moving on.

My point is just this: your labels should help define a character, not simply describe them. For example, “She’s hungry” is a boring label, whereas “She’s always so cantankerous because she’s hungry from dieting incessantly in an attempt to look like Jennifer Aniston” is a label that’s full of useful information for building a character.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to turn down the lights. It’s not flattering in here at all.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

Darren Held
About Darren Held
Darren is the CEO and Creative Director of Held2gether, Improv for LIfe. He has been teaching and performing improv for 15 years, and has performed with H2g, the Groundlings, UCB and Second City. He loves Moto, red wine, and Madonna.

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