Learn Improv approaches characters in Three Parts: Move, Sound and Want.
Improv comedy characters are created by the player in an instant. This creation of the instant character is unique to improv comedy. A writer can meticulously develop a character over months or years. Directors can collaborate with actors to infuse a character with a rich history of motives and planned reactions. Improv comedy does not enjoy these luxuries.
The audience immediately connects with a character by what they see on stage. Improv characters are quickly built on three common elements: how they move, how they sound, how they think. Moving beyond these three elements usually requires more time than a usual improv scene has. Long-form styles may allow for more in-depth characters. Long-form can revisit the same character over multiple scenes expanding and explaining her motivations.
Three Parts of the Character
- gait, handedness, physicality
- voice, volume, pace, or accent
- desires, triggers, emotions, motivations
The first thing that the audience sees is how the character moves. How the player moves into the scene conveys information about the character. Improv actors need to focus on a strong movement choice.
The term move is very broad. This allows for a wide range of elements to inform a character with gait, facial expression, posture, speed, handedness, gestures, etc. For an instant improv comedy character, it is recommended to choose one and stick with it.
For example, a character may have a recurring gesture of clasping their hands together when they speak. The hand clasping can change to convey anger, anxiety, or happiness.
In long-form, the move of the character is crucial for cueing the audience that a character has returned to the stage.
The majority of offers in improv comedy are made with speech. Defining a character with a distinct sound is the strongest part of improv comedy character creation. How the player sounds in the scene conveys information about the character. Improv actors need to focus on a strong sound choice for their character.
The term sound is very broad. This allows for a wide range of elements to inform a character with volume, pace, accent, intonation, inflection, emotion, etc. Holding onto the sound component of an improv comedy character is very hard.
For example, a character may have a quiet harrumph noise after her sentences. Otherwise, her sound is her usual onstage voice. The harrumph noise can be changed throughout the scene to convey happiness, interest, or fear.
The want is the secret sauce that influences the character’s actions. The audience cannot see the want that the character has. The want may become obvious in a scene, or the want may never be revealed. The player may change her character’s want based on offers in the scene. A consistent want is helpful to create character consistency.
The term want is very broad. This allows for a wide range of elements to inform a character. The want could be a specific goal, desire, a trigger, a fear, an emotion, a belief, an obsession or nothing at all.
For example, a character may want to open all the windows in the room. This want never need be revealed. The player need never open a window herself. She may use the want to express concern when another character closes a window. The want may represent self destructive desires if the setting is a submarine or spaceship.
In long-form, the want of the character is crucial for driving consistent decisions from scene to scene.
Not all parts are needed for every character. Three parts are goals, not rules. The goal of using three parts to make an instant character is what matters. Allow players to use their strengths of movement, voice or want to create fun characters. If a character doesn’t work out, it is usually because the three parts were missed. Having one strong part is usually adequate for improv comedy characters.
Animal Characters are a good tool for developing the three parts of the character. Players can instantly come up with the three parts of an animal character. A squirrel moves quickly and has busy hands. The squirrel voice is usually squeaky and fast-paced. All squirrels are looking for food for the winter.
Accents are a specific challenge for improv comedy. There is a long and storied history of accents being accompanied with stereotypes and derogatory roles. An accent should only be an accent. When an accent is accompanied with a stereotype it is most likely punching down. Racist, homophobic and sexist comedy is old and unacceptable.
Three parts can be helpful in using accents for character creation without stereotyping. If an accent (sound) is connected with an expected behaviour (want) there is likely stereotyping. No examples are going to be given here. For guidance on racist, sexist, and homophobic content please consult the Intertubes.
Three parts was previously called the Holy Trinity of the character. Three parts is a more universal and approachable term than the previous Holy Trinity of the Character or Triumvarate of the Character.
The most important rule of improv is that there are no rules. However, there are goals. Three parts is an example of a collection of goals that players will try to use to create characters for a scene. Choosing the terminology of goals creates a more supportive and caring learning milieu.