Technically a lot of things make up a really good book. But as a reader, I will forgive an author many plot and style problems. The one thing I can’t get past is the characters. Good characters can make an atrociously bad premise readable. Bad characters can render the most meticulous world-building pointless.
The thing is, as writer, you are the director. You move all of the pieces of the script, scenery and players around to make sure everyone’s in the right place at the right time for the right effect. But to really get into your characters’ heads and bring them alive on the page, you can’t think like a director. You have to think like an actor. Specifically, an improvisational theater actor.
Any actor, but especially an improv actor, has to have a highly refined sense of timing, place, position, and body language. They understand the effect of every movement and word they speak. They know that the position of the shoulders can change a character’s entire message. That’s something you, as a writer, need to know.
Luckily for those of us with intense stage fright, there’s no need to run out and join an improv acting class. Instructional books and videos abound. But my favorite of all time is a classic on which many other books and classes are built. Impro, by Keith Johnstone, and the sequel, Impro for Storytellers, may be edging on forty years old (as reflected in the sometimes problematic language), but they could give an extraordinary boost to your character craft.
There’s more packed into the books than can possibly be summarized, but here are three examples I use to inform my own characterizations:
Impro focuses a lot on status, because a lot of our understanding of interactions comes from the status games we’re observing. There are two relevant features in any interaction between people in your writing. The first is the person’s actual social status. Are they a king? An outcast? A woman in a patriarchal society? The second is the status the person is playing. We often consider characters or dialogue more interesting when these two don’t match. A king who acts as a servant and a servant who acts like a king are more interesting than the inverse.
Impro for Storytellers devotes a lot of time to things people do that slow or stop the progression of the story. One of those things is called “blocking.” It can be dialogue, action, or even body language that rejects or kills a start made by another character. For example, a character invites their friend swimming, and the friend says they don’t feel like it. You may have used the moment to create tension (i.e. to show they’re angry in refusing the invitation) but the action, the progress of the story has stopped, and the second character has attempted to gain control of the conversation. This can be used constructively, but only if done deliberately, with awareness of the underlying dynamics of control.
In both books, Johnstone is quick to condemn attempts at “originality.” A person who is trying to be original and clever will end up responding slowly and unnaturally. In reality the first thought that comes to mind, even if it seems boring, is probably the correct response. An example from Impro is of an actor being asked, “What’s for supper?”
“…a bad improviser will desperately try to think up something original. Whatever he says he’ll be too slow. He’ll finally drag up some idea like ‘fried mermaid’. If he’d just said ‘fish’ the audience would have been delighted. No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improviser is, the more himself he appears.”
Your characters are the same way, and will show themselves better and more naturally in unforced interactions than in any attempt to be clever and original.
(Note that I am not adding an ordering link to the books, because they are only available in limited print. It’s worth a bit of hunting to find a cheap used copy of both, rather than pay the collector prices for new copies on Amazon).