JImmy Carrane and Susan Messing

3 Tips for Creating Instant Improv Characters

By far the thing I hear most from improv students when they first start working with me is: “I want to do characters. Teach me how to do characters. My last teacher said I need to do more characters.”

I get it. I have struggled with this myself. There was even a time when I was convinced that I didn’t know how to play characters so I would pretend like it wasn’t cool to do them, bragging to people, “I don’t do characters.” What an idiot. In some cases, I actually was doing them and didn’t even know I was, and the rest of the time I was judging myself and others for doing them. I was messed up.

Thank God over the years I have gotten more comfortable with playing improv characters, and now I find it fun and liberating. (That’s between us). I have come across some simple tricks to jump start me into doing characters. You are going to hate me for this, but there is no right or wrong way to create characters. It’s really whatever works for you. I have seen people approach character by a playing an attitude, or an emotion, or a physicality or a voice or an accent. All work, it’s just a matter of taste. What is important in playing improv characters is point of view, how they look at the world and how they respond to their scene partner through that filter.

Once I have that filter in place, and know how this person will respond to things, I am out of my head and I can start saying things that I would not normally say on stage or in life. I’m not playing me anymore. I may be a heightened part of me or someone completely different. All I know is it is so fucking freeing when it happens.

Here are three of the quickest way to create instant character:

1. Start with a strong emotion
That’s right. Come right out of the box and start the scene with a strong emotion: happy, sad, angry, afraid. I know what you are saying: “That is cheating. That is planning.” You are not planning the scene, you are not planning the dialogue, you are still improvising. Get over it. Nobody has time in most long form scenes to start out in neutral. You have to start with something or you’re dead. I have seen beginning students who were completely paralyzed on stage, until I introduced this concept and they were able to do scene work that took me ten years to achieve. A strong emotion will give you an instant point of view. End of discussion.

2. Mirror your scene partner
I love working with Susan Messing because nobody does strong characters like she does, and I am sharing with you a little secret that I use when I play with her. I just follow her and mirror what she is doing in terms of energy and character. (Let’s also keep that between us). I can hear you guys now: “But Jimmy, you are working with Susan Messing. She is brilliant.” Before you are so quick to judge, try it. I have often mirrored characters, and I have seen my students do it with tons of success. Why can’t you? When John Hildreth and I do “Jimmy and Johnnie” we usually agree before the show that we will start our first scene by mirroring everyone else’s energy and characters. We built that right into the form. Thank you Susan and Rachael Mason for that one.

Another variation on this is to play the opposite of your partner’s energy from the instant they come out on stage. If some comes out and plays a big, boisterous character, you could play the opposite — a meek or scared person. Either way, you’ll have a distinct point of view. I think you get it, so let’s move on.

3. Using a physicality
You’ve heard this one a million times, I am sure, and I have used this one a lot over the years. The secret to this is to be aware of what you are doing and then heighten the shit out of it. This typically comes from a very organic place. You may start the scene by wringing your hands together. What does that tell you about the character? They could be nervous or anxious. They could be washing their hands and being a germ-a-phobe. Ok, right now start rubbing your hand together and see what kind of attitude comes up for you. I’ll wait.

Another simple variation of using a physicality is adjusting your posture. I have done this where I simply adjust my naturally poor posture. If I enter a scene where I am standing up straight, I immediately play high status: a boss or a teacher a bully or an asshole father. I have gone into scene where I bend over and up play some sort of wimp or weasel or snitch or low self-esteem guy.

What do you use to create instant characters? Let us know. I am always open to keep learning more.

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11 replies
  1. Michael Piz
    Michael Piz says:

    I can’t remember where I saw this (might even have been here), but David Kirchner said that he often uses the suggestion to inform a character. The example he gave was a suggestion of “knife,” which he took to “sharp,” then he gave two examples of characters who personified “sharp” in different ways.

    I’ve been using that on occasion. I *love* creating characters.

    Reply
  2. Kenny Madison
    Kenny Madison says:

    Great article, Jimmy! If I can just piggyback on this, another one that I learned from one of my teachers is stage positioning. The way that you are positioned on stage in relevance to another person can help inform your emotion, which can jumpstart your scene. It’s this subconscious thing in your head which informs how you might be feeling. Then use that and move into your work.

    Reply
  3. Johnny Molson
    Johnny Molson says:

    Love the “emotion” and “physicality” tips. My favorite has always been “start in the middle.” It’s like handing your partner and YOU a character at the same time. “This is a very impressive resume, Mr. Whittaker…” …and you’re off to the races.

    Reply
    • Michael Piz
      Michael Piz says:

      I like to initiate not just in the middle of the action but even in the middle of a sentence. My favorite so far: “…and that’s why I say the plastic grocery bag is the modern-day tumbleweed.”

      Reply
  4. Lewayne McQueen Jr
    Lewayne McQueen Jr says:

    Two things, Seeing who’s messing with who, if you know you’re messing with the other character boom you’re that, if they’re messing with you boom you feed them things to mess with. The other thing, yourself, sometimes you have a unique and interesting point of view on a specific subject and the best character is you, a character filtered through your authentic point of view. Or even better the opposite point of view if know your own p.o.v. you can do the opposite. Nice article btw

    Reply
  5. joseph bennett
    joseph bennett says:

    Thanks for another great post, Jimmy! It’s so vital to create character and then you can work through them, as in seeing the scene through their point of view. Reminds me the words of Mick Napier “it’s more important HOW your character says something then what they say” Thanks for your wisdom, Jimmy!

    Reply
  6. Dan Posluns
    Dan Posluns says:

    I’ve always been a fan of Jill Bernard’s VAPAPO, that is: Voice, Attitude, Posture, Animal characteristic, Prop, Obsession. Any one of those (or combination) can be used as a seed both to instantly create a character, and to go back to for informing that character’s behavior.

    Reply
  7. David Patrick
    David Patrick says:

    Great post. Tried the hand wringing and in five seconds went from nervousness – my first impulse – to diabolical guy taking over the world. Happened organically, spontaneously, and completely out if my head. Will try with my students soon.

    Reply
  8. Justin Parlette
    Justin Parlette says:

    Seth Thomas of The Defiant Thomas Brothers teaches a fantastic character class at Second City. I highly recommend it for anyone struggling with generating characters or people who feel like they “play themselves” all the time.

    Reply

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