An overview of creating rich character relationships in scenes
First of all can we agree that every interaction between characters is an insight into their relationship? No? OK, why not? Well, some characters aren’t really characters at all; they’re just placeholders for where a character could be. Take the fast food clerk who delivers the burger to the protagonist or the toll booth operator, the protagonist interacts with them as they might with an appliance. Fine – then don’t have them on stage or on the page. If the function of a character in a scene can be replaced by a machine then it must be, but more likely any good editor will jump the story straight past this dull section and leave it on the cutting room floor.
But in improv there is no editor.
I’ve been performing improv for a decade and teaching it for the last three years at City Varsity; the most common mistakes I see in the beginner’s class is the creation either of flat transactions masquerading as scenes or characters with inner dynamism but no connection to anyone else on stage. To address this, my students and I developed the four pillars of relationships – four things to bear in mind whenever characters interact. These are things that good improvisers all do but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it formally rolled into a single theory.
What is the nature of the relationship? The first step is figuring out the formal definition of the relationship and making it clear to your partner onstage. This is the most important label that other characters might stick on the jar and is a literal one. Brother/Sister, Mother/Son, Doctor/Patient, Cop/Criminal, Wife/Husband, etc. Some of these are more loaded than others, but all have potential to be interesting. What about strangers though? Can’t we do a scene with two characters who’ve just met? Sure, in fact some of the best scenes I’ve ever witnessed feature two strangers meeting, generally done by experienced performers who work together effortlessly. Just like the “say yes to everything” rule, these are principles that must be sublimated in the performer, a foundation from which to play. What makes this a foundation is that by being clear about the nature of the relationship, the other pillars are suggested and so can be springboarded or subverted for scene beats.
From the nature we build shared history. Deep relationships are built of shared experiences, good performers and writers will hint at these without making them the focus of the scene, although it can provide dramatic beats through tilts and revelations. Imagine a scene: a wife confesses to her husband she’s been cheating. He’s furious, he rants. She digs into their past to defend herself – the child they tried to have maybe. A scene becomes richer when the characters reach back into their shared history and gives us more perspective on the moment. This is also handy with side characters; how often have you seen the protagonist walk into a bar or diner and be greeted with familiarity by the barman or waitress? It allows a shorthand glimpse into the regular life of the character and their place in the world. Shared history also exists between strangers. Wait, what? But they’re strangers. I’m willing to bet that every time you’ve met a new person and managed a conversation it was probably because of the things you shared – growing up in a particular time or place, experiencing the same music or books, or bonding over the misadventures of a mutual friend.
The nature of the relationship and the shared experiences of characters are both fixed aspects: Once established, they cannot easily be altered without undermining the scene. If one character identifies another as her daughter the scene cannot proceed if this isn’t taken as fact. A performer may try to use a cheap trick to get around this, for instance making the other character demented or insane, but something substantial is always destroyed this way – the faith of the audience and possibly the other performer’s trust too.
The remaining pillars are more easily changed. The first is status. Who holds the power in the relationship? Power can be defined in as many different ways as there are different characters, it all depends on they think of as important. Power may come from respect, which may be personal, professional or societal – does one character admire the other? For their job? Their intellect? Their good looks? Or does one look down on the other for their poverty? Their body odour? Their history? Power can also come from objects, their innate value or their threat. Changing the balance of status is easily justified through the course of a scene; maybe the cop loses the gun or the CEO falls clutching at his heart. Status reversals are very satisfying ways to end scenes.
The final pillar is the most fluid, it is attitude. Attitude is the moment to moment emotional relationship of one character toward another. It has two basic categories: positive or negative. Examples of positive attitudes: love, admiration, trust, interest, lust. Examples of negative attitudes: anger, annoyance, disgust, fear, contempt. I haven’t come across anyone preaching the usefulness of attitude, I think because it is so instinctive in most good performers. I first noticed how important it is for a scene to have contrasting attitudes when watching a scene between two seasoned performers, one of whom was high status and using that to almost block the other performer’s proposals. The scene worked because the low status character had an incredibly positive attitude toward the higher; essentially they played the bumbling servant and the cynical master (like Blackadder and Baldrick). Teaching the idea of attitude became essential as a part of teaching status because when students were asked to adopt a high status role they would overwhelmingly go for negative attitudes towards their partners. Perhaps that is a reflection of their defining experiences authority figures.
The two shifting pillars, Status and Attitude, are dependent on the fixed ones, Nature and Shared History. Any combination of the four is possible but revelations in the fixed two inform and shift status and attitude. Great improvisers create relationships with interesting choices in each of the four aspects, creating a clear nature, building a rich shared history and complementing and juxtaposing status and attitude.
Can you have a compelling scene between two characters without these pillars? They could be strangers, have no shared history, be of undefined and unchanging status, and be indifferent to each other. That sounds more like two people in an elevator than two people onstage.