The good news is that basic characterization techniques are simple, fun to learn and very effective.
If you've listened or seen a good storyteller at work, you'll know that living into or becoming the characters in your tale is vitally important for making them appear real.
These simple characterization techniques will show you how to achieve that.
You will not learn how to become an actor for that is a complex process requiring years of specialist training. But you will learn enough to lift your storytelling in speeches to new heights.
Most stories have as well as a narrator, characters who say things and interact with each other. Even if they are small tales of only 30 seconds long or less, they will still, most likely, have those elements. The key to successfully telling these very small stories is to establish believability instantly. You do that by using characterization techniques.
|The free monthly ezine |
for everybody who has been, or might be,
'called on to say a few words'
and wants to get them right.
Mastering basic characterization techniques ...
... means you need to know:
- what emotions do in terms of firstly your body language, and then your voice.
- how to drop into and out of those emotive states very quickly to follow the flow of your story line.
Matching mood and body language I
t's easier to begin with if you concentrate on your own body. Learn to consciously know what you do
when you're experiencing differing emotions for example, excited, ashamed, or confused.
Mirror, mirror on the wall ...
A quick way of getting this awareness is to remember times when you experienced those emotions. Put yourself back into the situation and holding that state, look at what your body does to express it in the mirror.
The trick is do this exercise wholeheartedly. Do it without reservation. No holding back!
Remember small or subtle changes won't communicate rapidly to an audience. This is not film. You don't have the benefit of close-ups or lingering shots. You need to convey the mood immediately and unambiguously.
Once you've established what one mood feels like; where it is centered in your body, what it does to your posture, how it reflects on your face, change it for another. Make these shifts between two opposite emotions, like 'happy' to 'sad' so the differences between them are easily observed and remembered.
Walk the line
The next step is to practice shifting states quickly. A technique I've used in classes is to draw a line on the floor. One side, for example, will be 'happy' and the other 'sad'. I have students walk toward it holding 'happy' and immediately they step over it they must assume 'sad'. We start slowly and build up speed until the changes occur almost instantly.
NB: There's a page on body language here. Even though it's mostly about appropriate body language for speakers delivering a straight non-storytelling speech, if the notion is new to you, it will provide a basic introduction.
And now let's move to ...
Characterization techniques for voice
You know that tone, pitch, volume, and the speaking rate of words changes according to how we feel.
For example, if we're irate then the volume is likely to be raised, as is the pitch, the tone will be harsh and the rate the words come from our mouth will probably be much faster than usual.
The task is to figure out how to accurately and quickly characterize mood shifts with our voice.
Do we need to alter pitch, tone or rate of speech? Do we need to stress some words or parts of them more than others? Do we need to hold some up or pause? And what breathing patterns do we need to underpin their delivery?
Begin with the body
A simple way of getting into character voice is to begin with the body. Assume the emotion first and then add voice.
My character is tired and bored. I show that my slumping my shoulders forward. I let my center of gravity slip so my weight is mostly being carried through my legs. My arms may hang loose at my sides. My head is heavy on my neck and my face says, 'Yeah, so what!' I sigh heavily.
Now speak. Holding the body language and say whatever comes first into your mind. Listen to hear if the emotion of your body carries through to your voice. It should sound 'flattish' and slightly held back as if speaking was an effort. If there are inflections they will tend to fall rather than rise.
Once you've heard and passed yourself as reasonably accurate for one mood - swap to another. Keep using the mirror, noting the differences as you go so you can easily return and replicate what you've done.
Now let's put these ...
Characterization techniques into a story
To do that well, we need to refine them a little more.
Who is talking?
We need to know 'who' is doing the talking. So far we've looked at mood and how mood informs body and then voice.
Now we need to look at exactly 'who' the person is experiencing the mood.
Are they old, young, male, female, rich, poor etc, etc.?
What physical mannerisms (stance, habit, way of talking) distinguishes them from anybody else?
Use simple recognizable stereotypes
Characterization doesn't need to be complicated - simple is better. Try thinking stereotypes rather than 'real' people.
You need an easily identifiable gesture or body stance marking one character from another.
The rich man impressed with his own power, quite literally stands as if he were full of himself. Feet apart, chest out, and head high. He looks down on those beneath him.
In contrast, the young flirty girl stands with one leg behind the other, hands clasped behind her back, cocks her head to one side, thrusts her chest out and swings her body from side to side.
Once you've found your key gesture for each character practice them. Use the mirror to help you and watch yourself go cleanly from one to another.
Adding mood & voice to character
With the characters established you are ready to add mood and voice.
In the first part of characterization techniques we focused on learning the body language for varying emotions. Now we'll deepen that.
While holding your key gesture denoting character, add an emotional state.
For example, what would the flirty girl do with her body to show anger, happiness, or sadness?
You'll need to experiment until you find what feels and looks right. Once you have, add voice.
And now you're ready to apply your characterization techniques to a story.
Anything that is direct dialogue gets the characterization techniques treatment. That means if you've got a salesman talking you become him. You also become the customer, the bystander or anybody else in your story. You play all the characters, including yourself, the narrator linking all the players together.
NB As the narrator you stop acting and assume your normal speaking pose and voice.
Just one more tip to slip into your ...
Characterization techniques kit
Because you are playing two or more people as part of your story doesn't mean you need to rush all over the stage from one speaking place to another to show who is talking.
You can achieve this through illusion. For each character establish a place they look to whenever they speak or react.
For example, the salesman looks straight ahead. The girl looks up to her right and the boy looks to his left.
The audience will very quickly understand what you're doing and follow without confusion providing your transitions between characters (including narrator) are crisp and clean.
As with most things, practice makes perfect. These characterization techniques will add vibrancy and life to your stories. I hope you enjoy the process of getting better and better at telling them.
Return to top of characterization techniques page
Return to write-out-loud.com home page