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What is a Character?

Updated: Dec 31, 2023

Time for the second topic for Summerizing Improv. Shout out to Conrad for making me think about the ontology of what we do so much.

In some ways, the question of what a character is seems so obvious that it’s almost not worth asking the question: a character is a person in a story. Orlando, Katniss Everdeen, Willy Wonka. These are characters. We’ll ignore the other definitions of character – “the sum of all traits of a person”, “ an unusual person”, or “moral nature” – for now.

So let’s start with that simple definition – “a person in a story” – and expand personhood to include all the animals and objects an improviser could want to play. I can play Leslie the lawyer and a broken toaster with basically equal freedom on an improv stage. Which is GLORIOUS.

Since we are telling fictional stories, our characters are fictional, even when they share the same name and traits as a real-existing person. By putting some combination of the real person’s traits into a new context, we have made them a fictional character. I would argue that the same is true for scripted biographical works, but that’s for another discussion.

Since our characters are fictional creations, they have to be created by someone. In some ways, it seems like the player playing the character is the sole creator. But any improviser who’s been endowed with a profession or a trait by their scene partner knows that’s not quite right. So the character is the creation of all of the players on stage, with some contributing more than others.

But is that it? Because the audience has a bigger part than we might imagine. Sometimes they suggest aspects of a character directly, sometimes it’s their responses that affect the choices the players make more indirectly. And here we have to get a bit more precise about creation vs. inspiration. Does the audience really CREATE the character or are they just INSPIRING and INTERPRETING it?

The line between inspiration and creation in this context is fuzzy enough that I think it's fair to say that it depends on the show, with most shows drawing the line at the fourth wall: creation happens on stage, while inspiration comes from the audience.

Now we can update our definition of character to: “a fictional entity inspired by the audience and created on stage”.

More on what we do to create that character in the next part…

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