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Building a Character

Building a Character

You can look online and find lots of resources for creating fictional characters. Depending on where you go, there might be 5 types, 7 types, even 9 types of characters (protagonist, antagonist, love interest, foil, etc.). Then there are the steps to creating a character – 6, 13, maybe more. All good places to start, and all probably worth investigating. But when I am working on a character, it starts with commitment. I have performed as characters, sung as characters, made a fool of myself as a character, and had the glorious opportunity to create many characters over my 20+ years with IDEAS. But the first thing I do when getting started is to commit – all in, no holds barred, and no apologies. If I can’t do that, then I’m not ready and it’s time to move on to something else and come back to it later.

When I was touring with a big party band back in another lifetime, we would sometimes sing the song “Peanut Butter” by the Marathons. To amp up the show value to the audience, this involved someone (me) smearing themselves with peanut butter on stage. Now, this needed to be done right or it would just be stupid. At first, I would start by dipping a spoon into a jar of peanut butter and eating it, sharing my joy with a little dance after each taste. Then the spoon would get tossed and I’d dip a finger into the jar to eat some more. Each time with a little dance of excitement. That escalated into me dabbing a smudge or two of it on my face with a vulnerable look to the crowd as if I couldn’t help it. Then came the first handful smearing it across my mouth and reveling in its smooth creaminess (no chunky, please). By now, the crowd was in the palm of my hand as I had carefully revealed Peanut Butter Man’s odd eccentricity and had earned their acceptance and support. With a minute to go in the song, the jar would get emptied and proudly worn across most of my body to the roar of the audience. Clean up was always a challenge, especially outside on one November night in Calgary after doing it live on TV for the CFL’s Grey Cup pre-game party. Commitment.

If I had broken character, violated the 4th wall, or just acted goofy slapping the PB all over me, the bit would not have worked and the crowd would have been turned off instead of cheering for PB Man at the end of the song. Commitment. Another time, I was helping out my comedy partners who were working on a Top 40 radio morning show while I was starting to work in video production as a writer with odd characters to do on air. One of these was Chucko the Birthday Clown, who would wish everyone a happy birthday on the radio but was not a very good clown, often getting stage fright in front of people with certain digestive ramifications as planned by the shock jock radio show hosts. No biggie, free CDs and the odd tickets to a show for helping out in the studio. But then once the bit had become a regular feature, they decided to take it to the next level … Win a Date with Chucko! No longer was I doing this on a mic in the studio, now I had to get a costume and really become this character for real for an entire evening, including taking my date to dinner with the radio station personalities and then escort her to the Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine concert in town that night. What to do? Commitment.

From the moment I put on the rainbow wig (not every day you get to say that) until the limo dropped me off at my house at the end of the night some 8 hours later, I never broke character. I was creating Chucko on the fly in front over everyone – friends, colleagues, strangers, and my radio contest date. This was the first time Chucko had ever been out in public. Picking up the contest winner, I presented her with a handmade balloon animal – the snake was my specialty. For my big romantic dinner date with the contest winner and 15 of our closest radio station DJ friends, I had French fries and vanilla ice cream – one, because Chucko has a sweet tooth and was basically still a child, and two, because dipping French fries into the ice cream was about the cleanest consumption of non-staining food items I could think of at that moment wearing gloves, make-up and a mask. The limo drove us to the concert, we circled the venue several times standing up through the sun roof waving to everyone, went backstage to meet the band, told Gloria Estefan that Chucko’s favorite song was “When The Curds Get In The Wey”, and had a great time at the concert dancing and meeting fans of the radio show. Commitment.

Later on, writing for IDEAS, I’ve had wonderful opportunities creating a wide range of characters from an historic century old hotel on Clearwater Beach to a set of rambunctious animated silicone kitchen utensils to endearing animals learning about hazardous weather safety in children’s books. We’ve worked with existing characters, personalities, and fictional performers to take them to the next level across a variety of venues and mediums. Each character I helped to create and expanded, whether inanimate, fictional, or real life started with a commitment to making them REAL. I had to care about them, their story, and their reason for existing (raison d’être). If they are not believable, approachable, and quickly become familiar, then you are asking the audience to go that extra mile to get to know them and embrace your story. For me, I have to burn inside wanting to bring a character to life and share them with the rest of the world. If I do not have that fire stoked internally, there are not enough types or steps that will help.