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Character Creation Part 2: Traits

This post focuses on what the player does to create their character’s traits, see here for the posts on definition, physicality, objective and endowments.

I blame “the method” but when we think about acting, we tend to get stuck on a character’s inner life and fair enough, it’s fun to get lost in feeling/fantasizing about what a character thinks in their most private inner self. But that’s not what an audience sees! So as joyful a source of inspiration as this inner self can be, this post will focus on what can be seen on stage.

An audience will see your actions, reactions and emotions. And based on their experiences (cultural differences will affect interpretations), they will organize those into certain character traits. There are tons of traits lists out there, I like this one, but feel free to suggest more.

Let’s say you discover or decide that your character is germaphobic. What choices could you make to show that?

Action: You spray disinfectant on the door handle.

Reaction: You refuse a handshake.

Emotion: You seem afraid around people who appear sick.

Of course, you could also just say that your character is a germaphobe, but where’s the fun in that? On an improv stage we’re always living in the space in between writing and acting a character, so it’s important for us to remember to keep sinking back into acting the character’s traits as opposed to labeling them with dialogue or signaling them with broad-stroke actions.

Germaphobic is admittedly very distinctive so let’s go through the same process for something more subtle: reliable.

Action: You prepare dinner on time.

Reaction: You reassure your boss that you will get the presentation done because you’ve always completed them before*.

Emotion: You seem happy when people trust you.

With more subtle traits it will take more than one action to tell us that it’s really a character trait being shown and not just situation based. But our writer brains should always be on the lookout for possible traits emerging and then confirm them with more related actions, reactions and emotions.

Most characters that we want to spend time with are a combination of many traits, and honestly sometimes just combining two is enough to play with: innocent genius, shy and greedy, moody and kind.

If you find yourself wanting to focus more on inner life and play longer narratives, it may be useful to organize your character’s actions etc. around objective. So we'll look at that in the next post!

*You'll notice this reaction already suggests a plot point: a break in the routine or a tilt. And a situation that forces a character to act "out of character" or not according to their previously established traits can be a great inciting incident for a longer narrative.

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