Writers and improvisers strive to replicate moments, to create fiction that feels real. Wizards and spaceship admirals are easily accepted, but living in strange lands and beyond final frontiers will shape a person, not reinvent humanity. Often, developing believable characters is as much extrapolation as invention. If a character doesn’t act like a “real” person, then the audience will not be able to bond with them. It’s a Turing Test of sorts. The greatest fiction makes a character seem so real that the audience would want to punch them in the face or buy them a beer.
The only way to realistically write a diverse cast of characters is to have observed an equally diverse group of people. Writing and improv both seek to replicate and speculate on the human experience, so often, it’s a simple as paying attention at the right moments. When I go to a restaurant, my eyes are almost always moving. I am paying attention to my dining companions, but I am aware of everyone around me. I notice the body language of the couple at the next table over: how the woman is gearing up for a fight and how the man hasn’t realized it yet. I pick up on how my waitress’ tone changes as she interacts with each table she serves: flirty with the single man, but subdued and discrete with the family across the aisle. I see body language, listen to speech patterns and accents, and am dissecting the nuances of social interactions. My closest friends understand this quirk, though it has ruined more than one first date.
Improv trained my universal awareness, forcing me to stretch myself. Tracking what my fellow players are saying and doing is only the start. While on stage, I need to be aware of how our actions come together to create the scene as a whole, and perceive how the scene would look to the audience. I am examining the body language of audience members to see what they find funny or exciting. I need absolute awareness of my own body, to ensure that I am communicating without coming off as fake or over exaggerated. The trick for me was to realize that universal awareness isn’t splitting my focus to each of these individual elements, but rather relaxing my focus and training my mind to parse and process all the inputs it is receiving, and extrapolate to fill in blind spots in my perception.
I find having a diverse cast of characters improves my experience as both a writer and a reader. Using skills that I honed on stage as an improviser, I am always watching those around me, picking up on their nuances to pull into my works. By working to extend my universal awareness, everywhere I go is research for my next story.Tags: Sequence 02: Improv and Writing