Characterization

by: Kirt Shineman & Nathan Steele

Multiple characters may be portrayed to animate the interpretation; these characters should be distinct from one another, embodying definite gender, age, height, and other distinguishing characteristics that enliven authentic characterizations. Reliance on caricature or stereotype should be resisted unless justified by the literature.

Credit should be given to unique and interesting delivery choices that enhance the literature. Delivery should be either natural and believable or appropriate to the literature. The use of focal points and/or direct eye contact with the audience should be determined by the requirements of the literature being interpreted.

Body Position

Body Position refers to the way in which characters stand and carry their body parts. Although there is a great diversity of possible body positions, the most basic ingredients to body position are the neck, shoulders and knees. The most rudimentary method for crafting distinct characters, using these three ingredients is to think tense, neutral/relaxed, and very relaxed.

Tense Neutral/ Relaxed Very Relaxed
Knees Knees locked Knees slightly bent Knees bent
Shoulders Shoulders back Relaxed Shoulders Slouched Shoulders
Neck Chin up, neck stretched Relaxed Neck Head hangs low

You can create a multiplicity of characters, using any variation of the above (ie: neutral knees, tense shoulders, and very relaxed neck). The position of one’s feet can be a 4th ingredient for distinguishing characters (ie: one character is pigeon toed). Using your feet to pop usually means pivoting on your heels, not taking a step or lifting a foot (this practice is usually avoided because it causes pops to be more laborious and less smooth).

Focus

Where your character is, what they’re seeing, and how they are feeling are communicated FIRST by a character’s focus; needless to say, making literature come alive requires a clear and distinct focus that is appropriate to the literature. Focus involves where and how the performer connects with audience, interacts with other characters, visualizes scenery/action, and gazes to communicate emotion. This nonverbal communication is critical in transforming the audience’s understanding of where you are and how you feel.

Appropriate focus involves careful analysis of the literature to motivate the reader to look/visualize in a particular point, direction, or manner. One aspect of focus is that it helps create the reality of multiple characters by enabling the audience to see the different characters through your eyes as you “become” the other character.

Through focus and visualization of the space, objects, and people in the scene, performers paint the scenery for the audience. A glass of liquor in your hand becomes real. The bee that just landed on your best friend becomes an concerning threat.  Much These elements of plot are often best communicated by the eyes. Verbal communication probably follows, but the eyes should see it first before the rest of the body can react. It is often powerful to visualize an action or get lost in a moment or feeling of the story, and then look to an audience member, breaking down the 4th wall to pull the audience deeper into the place of your character.

Types of focus

  • ON STAGE DIRECT FOCUS – This focus is not often used in competition. It is used primarily in the theater, when one character directly looks at another character while performing a play. This may be used sparingly in Reader’s Theater.
  • INWARD-REFLECTIVE FOCUS – This type of focus is used anytime the speaker is thinking reflectively (talking to him/herself). It does not mean staring in a direction, but more nearly gazing. The direction of the gaze is a tool that is individualized by the interpreter. Consider where you, personally, look when you are contemplating or thinking. You probably use a variety of foci- so you should with inward focus when interpretation asks you to think and create.
  • DIRECT AUDIENCE FOCUS – 
The literature is often written so that the speaker (narrator or character) is talking to an audience. In these instances, the interpreter should choose to look directly at them; how the character makes eye contact with the audience will define, in part, who the character is and how they relate to others. Allow this gaze to wander naturally through the audience (avoid scanning) and endure (finish a thoughts with individual audience members, especially if the character is confident) to make the character seem as genuine as possible. Hold a person’s gaze for a few seconds before moving to another person’s gaze. Introductions always use this focus.
  • OFF-STAGE FOCUS CHARACTER PLACEMENT – 
This focus is used when more than one character is involved in the chosen selection (even if that means the narrator and one other character). You must analyze the literature carefully to determine where each speaker should be placed; which ‘speakers’ will be placed slightly to the right or left. You might use post-it notes to practice where your characters will look when visualizing to characters or scenery. Do not place your focal points too far apart because 1) your audience will not be able to see your face as you shift from character to character, and 2) your pops between characters will be more jerky. Remember who you are talking to, how tall they are in relation to this character, how close they are, etc. As your skill in character development increases, your focus for each character should creep closer and closer to the center until only a slight inclination of angle is left. However, that tiny bit is vitally important. Remember, that when you look at people, you don’t just stare into their eyes; there are facial expressions, eye rolls, and plenty of reasons characters might avert their gaze.
  • OFF-STAGE FOCUS ON ACTION OR OBJECT – Descriptive literature often requires an interpreter to either visualize a “scene” as if it were being reenactor or to visualize an object as if it were real. This is similar to INWARD FOCUS, but different, because instead of focusing on nothingness while thinking, you actually project images with your brain that the audience can see. The sunrise or the apple hanging out of reach becomes real through this type of focus. To see an imagined something AND show that imagined something to an audience, the interpreter must also feel it. And so this visualization involves not only imagining things that aren’t there, but also allowing those imagined things to arouse emotion. The challenge of imagining a cherry pie is the same as imagining a murder; show the audience how it makes the character feel. Hungry, amused, disgusted? Much of the uniqueness of a character comes out in this nonverbal expression of emotions.
  • ON SCRIPT FOCUS
 – Every interpreter should refer to his/her script occasionally. After all, the script is the symbol for interpretation itself. However, a wise interpreter will find appropriate places to look down in his/her script and will not have too much head bobbing or too much reliance on the script. Although not by any means a rule, performers often look at the manuscript while closing and opening the book and during page turns.

Pops

Pops are necessary for selections that wherein a single performer must present the dialogue between 2 or more characters. Pops can be defined most simply as the body movement marking the transition from one character to another. Prior to working on pops, interpreters must first make decisions about characters’ body positions and focus. Sometimes pops are the performance element that takes the greatest amount of practice because so many things need to happen all at the same time (knees, shoulders, neck, feet, facial expressions, and voice must all change simultaneously).

Body Language

Let the basic ingredients of body position be the foundation for building characters’ bodies, but ultimately aim to add nuance and complexity to these choices in order to enhance the realism and distinctiveness of those characters. One of the primarily methods for generating this nuance is to think about a character’s body language. With Body Position, interpreters answer the question, “How does my character stand?” and now the question becomes, “How does my character move and breathe?” The answer to the latter question is likely to shift throughout the performance, as your character’s emotions and thoughts reflect the unfolding changes in the story, and so the question about body language is one to ask over and over, for different characters and at different moments in the story. Remember that every movement and breath communicates meaning and emotion.

Voice Qualities

All of the following qualities may be considered when deciding how characters will speak. These qualities present additional strategies for distinguishing multiple characters.

Pitch: Refers to how high or low the tone of one’s voice. Inflections (changes in pitch) can communicate meaning and feeling (ie: going up in pitch at the end of a sentence indicates a question or, if unregulated, a stereotypical valley girl accent; going down in tone can mark a shift toward anger)

Volume: Make it appropriate to the imagined context (where the character is) and audible to the audience (where you the performer are).

Tempo/Rate: Speed or slow that rate at which you deliver words.

  • Fast: suggests happiness, anger, annoyance, anxiety, surprise
  • Slow: complexity, sadness, uncertainty, boredom, lethargy, agedness,
  • Emphasis and Pausing are critical in giving words added complexity, gravitas, and power.

Articulation: Clearly form the syllabic sounds that produce intelligible speech. Some characters might have speech impediments or fatigue may cause slurring.

Pronunciation: Speaking a word as it is articulated correctly in a different culture; use of accents or dialects may be appropriate for some characters.

Resonance: Use of a breathy, nasally, raspy, or preacher-like voice.

Now that you know the basics of characterization, learn the rules and norms of the required manuscript.