Characters & Opinions


Here is another maxim I like, which came about in a RIOT rehearsal about 2 years ago, when we we trying out potential new permanent members.   We selected 5 promising players, and workshopped with them for about 6 months, once a week.   We took our time for 2 reasons: we wanted to see to what extent they would latch on to our style of playing (which is based on many of the posts on this blog, like these) and we also wanted to get a feel of their personalities, to see whether they would fit in on a personal level.

Maxim: Characters have Opinions

Anyhow, we were working on grounded characters & bold choices and noticed that several of the players did everything “right” by “the rules”, but somehow their characters were missing a certain spunk and/or it took a long time before we had an idea what the character was all about.  A bit frustrated, one of us – I think it was Kristien Lindemans – called the following:

Whatever happens, your character has a clear & strong opinion about it.  You character either – strongly – likes what just happened or what was just said, or strongly dislikes it.  “Meh” is not a very useful opinion.

Let me expand a bit on that.  First off, the gist of this idea is not limited to like/dislike emotions.  Equally valuable are love/lust/hate or fear/want.  One might argue that love/lust/want are extensions of ‘like’ and hate/fear are extensions of “dislike”.

Secondly, this maxim holds mainly for the setup of a performance.  Obviously, as soon as it has been established what a character needs (or not), this becomes less important.

And thirdly, this idea is like a “bold yes-and”.

Example of an offer :”Honey I’m pregnant”. Possible reactions are:

  • “No, you’re not”.  That is clear blocking; it’s definitely not yes-anding.  It *is* a strong opinion, but this opinion is not grounded, i.e. we have no idea why the husband/boyfriend character would state this.  Definitely not what we mean here.
  • “Yes, and I got a promotion today”.  That is not really yes-anding – the character is stating “yes” but what follows does not really build upon the pregnancy.
  • “Yes, and I hope it will be a boy”.  This is basic yes-anding.  Nothing wrong with it, but a bit Martha Stewart (i.e. a bit bland)
  • “Great honey, and I really hope this time it will finally be a boy”.   A subtle difference compared to the former, but stronger in the positive (want) sense.  It implies the husband/boyfriend really wants a boy, and adds the backdrop that several daughters have already been produced.  Why having a boy is so important for the husband/boyfriend is something we may discover later.  For the audience it might trigger a need-to-know: it somehow implies the promise that this question will be answered later in the performance.
  • “Great my darling, if it were to be a boy this time our Dark Master would be most pleased”.  Similar to the response above, but an even stronger choice.  Now we are really getting away from Martha Stewart improv.  This is a pretty bold choice that takes us far away from the ordinary here & now.
  • “Honey, how is that possible, we both use birth control”.     Again – at least in my book – this is basic yes-anding, be it in a negative sense, and perhaps shooting for laughter (a priori nothing wrong with that!).  The boyfriend/husband is acknowledging the fact that the missus is pregnant; be it that he adds an obstacle. In my book that is instant, ungrounded trouble.  Ungrounded; because we have no idea why both use birth control, and the situation seems to imply that there was a strong wish not to produce offspring.
  • “But honey, we both use birth control, how did this happen?  You know I only have 6 more months to live; I don’t want a kid that will never know her father!  Didn’t we discuss this?”   Again, acceptance of the offer, with instant trouble.  But we like this one better than the previous one, as a) we now understand a bit more of the dynamics between the couple; b) we have some backstory, we understand what the husband/boyfriend really doesn’t want, and why: the ‘instant trouble’ is better grounded than in the previous example.

You can play with this idea, and take it to the extreme, as in let the characters have extreme opinions about the most trivial things that happen or get said in the scene.

I am not trying to imply that some of the setups in the above examples which are weaker (in my opinion), might not lead to great scenes with interesting characters.  But IMHO the sooner our characters are grounded, the sooner the story gets on the tracks.

Neither am I claiming this is the only way to set up scenes or characters; this is merely a tool in our toolbox.

Since we stumbled across this idea, I have been using it in my workshops  for the past 2 years, and I like the success rate it brings to the table.  YMMV, so please share your opinions in the comments below.

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