Dog, Cat, Character.

 

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My cat, Moose. He is very amused. 

A couple of blogs ago I talked about the non-existence of writer’s block. My theory being that you can always write something. But I’d like to break it down a little further. 

We all have times when we have vague ideas but nothing that really seems pertinent. One of my most enjoyable, and helpful, experiences as an actor was the time I spent studying and performing with “The Groundlings,” a very well known comedy improv group in L.A. Some of the people I had in my class included Lisa Kudrow, Chris Parnell,(known mostly as Dr. Spaceman on 30 Rock) Michael McDonald from Mad TV and many more. They were great, but some of the people you don’t know were the funniest. 

The best thing you learn from improv is to always say yes. Sometimes you might have an idea then discard it before giving it a chance. That mean, negative voice in your head says, that’s stupid, it won’t work. 

I say, slap ’em and give it a try. To give an example in improve, you might have the audience suggestion that you are robbing a bank. Lights down, lights up! You’re standing there pretending to hold a gun in your hand pointing it at your partner, but before you speak they say. “Put all the money in a bag and act natural.” Now you’re the teller. 

Under no circumstances do you say, “No, I’m robbing you!” Instead, you need to justify the ‘gun’ position. So, the gun, becomes the bag and you retort with, “Good news, we’re giving away reusable shopping bags today!” And the scene continues. 

Or— “But you don’t have a gun. Here, take mine.” 

As I’m starting up notes for a new novel, it’s time for character development. Now I have several different systems for this, my favorite being to combine more than one interesting people I know into one. But to stay on the Groundlings theme, I want to give you an exercise that is both inventive and fun. 

Use your pet. In Groundlings, we would create scenes or monologues based on the personality of an animal we knew. One of the funniest I saw was a Basset Hound. “Are you leaving? Are you coming back? Are you ever coming back?” It made a hysterically loving but insecure person. 

So take a look at your cat, your dog, your iguana, your hamster, bird, what ever. Write down a few of their traits. Are they lazy? Always hungry? Eager for your attention or indifferent to your entreaties? Do they like to go outside and be adventurous, or do they prefer to lie on the heating vent and sleep all day? What do those traits translate to in human personality?

If they had a human voice, what would it sound like? Low and growly, or high-pitched and piercing? Are they quiet but full of remorseful stares, or do they chatter endlessly? What do they talk about? 

If they had a job, what would it be? If you have a cat that grooms constantly, perhaps they would be a hairdresser. A dog that sniffs out everything, a detective. A parrot that watches you constantly with one eye might be a psychiatrist. Don’t forget to give yourself several options before you land on one. 

Now, sit down and write a monologue as that person. Put the animal part aside, except for the traits you’ve landed on. Don’t forget physical traits. Are they slack-jawed and clumsy, super-stealthy, sneezers, droolers? It all works. 

Next, add another character. Maybe you, and make a conversation, or scene. This is a blast, who among us hasn’t had a one-sided conversation with our pet? Now they can answer back! You can go on from there to writing a short story or adventure for them, and trust me on this. You will be surprised by what they do. After all, you know them, but you don’t. 

And you’re off on your own petting zoo adventure. 

 By the way, if you are neither a writer nor a actor, this is still a super fun game for kids! I’ve used it as a writing exercise for a fourth grade class and they had a ball!! 

Now let’s move this into acting. In this case, I like to take one particular trait. I once had a director tell me that my character would enter the room and all eyes would go to her, knowing she was dangerous. 

Easy. I pictured that I had a long black panther tail that lashed from side to side as I walked. 

To translate this back to writing, you could say,  “He could almost hear the swish of a panther’s tail as she fixed her predator’s eyes on him, it lashed dangerously, delightedly, as she started for his table, and the hunt began.” Or some such, I’m winging it here. 

But you get the idea. Works both ways. On the page, and on the stage. (Or set, or studio, or living room, classroom, whatever.) 

So get in touch with you animal side, and write your little paws off. 

Have a blast!! 

Shari, January 2nd. 2013. 

 

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