Character Sketch

Kristen_Wiig_TIFF_2014

I really enjoy Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. His interviewing style is disarming, usually warm, and always very revealing. They are long form interviews that many of the subjects seem to enjoy, especially when they are on publicity junkets and are asked the same stupid questions over and over again. If you don’t yet listen, I recommend them.

Marc interviewed Kristen Wiig recently. I certainly know some of her work, including Saturday Night Live, and she was delightful–interesting, thoughtful, funny. She was open and candid. At one point in the interview, Marc asked her about how she approached sketch comedy and some of the characters she created. I don’t have her exact words, and I hope I at least captured the gist of what she said, but she talked about embodying the character’s physique and idiosyncrasies (or perhaps she said mannerisms) . If you can understand how they inhabit their world, you can then build on that and bring them honestly and realistically into the sketch.

I latched onto that and did two exercises, first writing brief character sketches focusing on a small number of characters and their physicality, then focusing on a different set of characters and their mannerisms. This is what I got.

Start with a character’s physique

1.

Tony had learned, over many years, to let his massive gut lead him into rooms, and across parking lots, and down flights of stairs. His shoulders were still square, his back still straight. But there the gut was, bigger and firmer every year. He was only self-conscious of it for a summer when he was much younger. Now it was just there, part of him.

2.

They got five liters that morning. Maureen lay on the table, the gown pulled up to her breasts and her panties pulled down to let the nurse work on her. Maureen concentrated on the nurse’s steady expression. The nurse—Marcy, all quiet efficiency—had to watch for when the line slowed almost to stopping, then she would withdraw the needle and Maureen would hold the gauze to it. It was only then that Maureen would close her eyes, breathe deeply, and try to wipe from her mind all thoughts of what was happening and why.

3.

The last ten pounds frustrated Scott. He knew he was 40 and would never be as lean as he was at 17 and 21 and 25. He was carrying 185 pounds on his 6’2” frame, despite now running almost 50 miles a week, sometimes 14 and 16 miles at a time. He was walking up and down Main Street, cooling down after what had been a fast nine miles from him. He had taken his first steps at 6:30 and it was a little before 8:00 but the son was already beating down and he peeled his shirt off. There it was, that little paunch layered over what he hoped was a six pack.

Julie was 28 and they had run together over four and six and eight miles during club runs. He had taught her to run at a pace where her breath was easy and she could still keep up a conversation. So they had run and talked. Three times now when the runs were over and the club had met back at the pub, she had stayed at his elbow and talked. She was new in town and she seemed to like having a friend.

4.

DeAndre was face down in the gutter now, his hands gathered under the shirt. He wasn’t sure where to grab first. He had felt four stabs, maybe five, but his whole belly was warm and wet, and he wasn’t sure, but something seemed to be sticking out. He touched it, expecting it to hurt. It was soft and as big as his pinky finger. He found where it probably belonged and pushed it back in.

Above and somewhere behind him, people were screaming and someone was getting kicked and punched. He heard the thumps and the cracks, heard someone groaning and crying out. He wondered if it was the little guy with the knife. He had just appeared next to DeAndre a minute before and stabbed him. It felt like punches but then one lit him up and he knew to stagger back into the street and turn face down. By then some of his boys had grabbed the little guy and were holding him back

 

Start with a Character’s Idiosyncrasy

1.

He was better than all of us, had clearly played ball on his life, and only relaxed long after the game was over and we had a few beers in us. On the field he was all business, manning short effortlessly, collecting every ground ball and making every throw. When he came in from the field he would sit on the bench with his glove still on. He would stretch it open and back, walk his other hand across the fingers, pull at the strings. When it was his turn to get on deck he would finally take it off, rest it on the bench, and grab a bat. He would get a hit every time.

2.

She was too pretty for Don to notice it at first. They had talked at coffee hour the first time she visited, and she had sought him out since. He towered over her—she might have even been under five feet tall—so Don took to stepping back even more than politeness called for so that he wasn’t looking down on her. It was only after a few weeks that it stood out. Her smile never left her face when she was listening to him, and she met everything he said with an “Uh-huh!” and a return to her smile. By the next summer it drove him crazy and he left her bed one Sunday and stopped returning his calls. He missed church, but only for a while.

3.

His dark red hair covered most of his forehead, and the muttonchops—fashionable back then—reached almost to the point of his chin. Aviator glasses covered so much of the rest of his face that there was almost no bare skin to look at it, and every inch of it was mottled with freckles. He was always snotty and apparently had never used a Kleenex in his life. He would snort everything back into his nose and spit it out, big and wet. He was too big to say anything about it and too crazy. The one time I crossed him, he took a gun out and pointed it at my face. I backed off.

4.

He was always the quietest kid in the room and everyone knew he was the smartest. Half of us were baked stupid by fourth period and almost every kid was clueless. It was Physics, and every question seemed to be missing crucial parts. “It’s 17 degrees on earth. How long will it take you to fly to the moon?” I would draw Venn diagrams full of random groupings. The Red Sox outfielders overlapping with all the known native Americans who played baseball. But there was Eddie, always finishing his work and laying his hand flat on the table in front of him. He would turn his head to the big windows and wait for the teacher to call time.

(Image Credit: By GabboT (Welcome to Me 46) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

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