Improv and the art of creating characters

How my nerdy side helps me be more creative

I have a confession, I was part of an improv troupe in college (uni) – personally I think it’s the coolest thing I have ever done but apparently making a fool of yourself and throwing yourself around with enthusiasm – I understand a lot of people consider it the nerdiest comedy. In later drama classes as an adult, I realised this was because it requires unadulterated enthusiasm which afterall is a sign you’re not that chill about things. I found others would stand self-conscious, I could still I flail around in the name of comedy quite happily. I think that’s called committing to the bit.

A self-confessed theatre-kid, who doesn’t get to indulge this side of myself anymore (see numerous post about how little time I have) I do actually get to use these skills all the time. A few of my favourite exercises in developing an idea, rely on my brains ability to lurch for that idea that’s just a bit different. As I wrote about before sometimes you have to avoid the cliché, even if they sit in your draft for a while, developing a character is about getting to know their quirks.

Here are a few ways I use my improv skills still to get to the depth of the character

Pick something at random is a great way to get a scene going. Taking my surroundings and turning them into a scene is something I have done many times. It is useful if you get stuck, to just start writing. I have sat in a coffee shop before and stared at a clock and wrote about the clock on the mantelpiece in the main character’s cottage. I have sat at a wobbly table at the bottom of the garden and translated into the gloomy teenager moping at his grandmother’s funeral. Of course this is a way of using your imagination that is valid and may even end up in a scene. But it is also playing the game put a character (yours) in a random scenario/ with a random object and create.

Ask more questions can trick your brain down a path that is further away than the first idea. If you ever played a game where you have to answer a question with a question, you know the comedy is in the absurdity. Words lose their meaning as you try and interrogate each other. Well instead of necessarily losing meaning, thinking about the barrage of questions or even drilling deeper on their why, can flesh out your character in your head. There is a theory in comedy that the tenth idea is your best one. Well what if that was the rough rule for all creative endeavours, asking relentless questions is a great way to get there.

Swap characters is a fiendish game because you have to really concentrate on what the other persons mannerisms are so when you are called to swap, you can carry on the scene. If I remember correctly, often someone puts on a weird accent or has something else obvious for you to copy. But in writing this can just be the game you play to understand your antagonist. Even if you are writing a first person narrator, knowing more about what the other person is a scene is thinking and doing has to help you develop and enrich them.

Be flexible is just general advice that you learn week one of improv. You need to yes and your writing. If another character begins to dominate the story, perhaps there story is a more interesting one to tell
Though improv games are there just to entertain, it doesn’t mean it can’t expand your brain. There is no reason either that it can’t expand your art.

What’s your secret hobby that’s helped you be more creative?

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