Wednesday, January 24, 2024

And I don’t mean through binoculars.

Like a lot of self-employed people, I work primarily from home. I became self-employed in 1998, so that’s a long time working on my own. Like a lot of writers, I’m quite a self-contained person. I’m used to living in my head and I enjoy my own company. And although a lot of people might think I’m an extrovert, I’m really quite introverted and I recharge my batteries during quiet, alone time.

The problem with this is that it doesn’t give me much opportunity to observe people doing people-y things, and that reduces the amount of externally-generated inspiration for new characters that I get. Sure, I have a wealth of experience of people – I mean, I haven’t spent the last 26 years living in a cave on a remote mountainside – so I can certainly conjure characters from my own imagination, but drawing from real life adds detail to the pictures my mind can draw.

Towards the end of last year, I started taking improv lessons with the aim of loosening up the slightly rusty nuts and bolts in my brain. It’s been a huge amount of fun and I am definitely beginning to feel more creative and more at ease with my instincts. But it’s also given me an opportunity to watch how other people do improv and how they approach creating a scene. And that has been unexpectedly fascinating!

We all have our quirks, our default ways of thinking. I know that in improv I always go for a conversational approach, whereas others default to disagreement, surrealism, or strange accents. I struggle to mime, because I’m really self-conscious about it, whereas others take to it like a duck to water (you can imagine the mime of that yourself). Some people let their improv partners lead, others have a clear idea of what they think the scene should become and work hard to make sure that they achieve that vision.

All of these quirks act as useful jumping off points for character development. Note that I’m not basing new characters on individual people, but when I see multiple people taking a similar approach, I ask myself, “If this were your first experience of a character’s attitude, how else might you expect them to behave?” It’s a process of taking a particular action or moment and then extrapolating it out.

When I think back to other groups I’ve been a part of, such as the ballroom dance lessons my husband and I took back in Sheboygan, WI, I didn’t get quite the same opportunity to watch how other participants responded to those around them. As you might expect, we all gathered in the hall, changed into our dance shoes, then did what we were told. There was very little opportunity to get to know people, and certainly no opportunity to watch how they might behave in multiple different scenarios over the course of one evening.

I know a lot of folk talk about people-watching in cafes, but I’m not convinced that you get much in the way of depth there, not unless you have extremely sharp ears and the tables are close together. To learn more about people’s characters, you need to be able to engage and actively observe over a period of weeks or months. And that active observation is important – if you’re always focused on throwing pots or drawing or singing, then you’re not free to watch and absorb.

Improv is great for giving you that time because, at least in our group, about half the lesson is sitting and watching other people perform. I suspect that any activity that includes a percentage of unfocused time, such walking clubs, book clubs or local theatre groups, will provide you with a chance to step back and start to build your own mental chap book of behaviours, idiosyncrasies and foibles that you can work into your characters.

So maybe, if you want to up your character game this year, your first step should be to find yourself a club to join or lessons to take?

Next Grist webinar – Plan Continuation Bias

The next Grist webinar will take place on Thursday 8 February at 19:00 GMT, and we’ll be taking a look at Plan Continuation Bias and how you can use that, and other cognitive biases, to help your characters make a jolly old mess of whatever it is they are trying to do. Stay tuned for the Zoom link, which will be sent out to paid Substack subscribers next week!

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