My friend Mark Joseph suggested I blog about game-based character Point of View (POV) and I happily bowed to his whims! This a massively deep topic so I thought I’d give a general overview as well as a couple of thoughts and tips.
What is POV?
As Mark was specifically referring to POV in terms of game based improv I’ll start there. POV is the filter through which an unusual character sees the world. It colours how they react and respond to things throughout the scene(s). Broadly speaking, a character’s POV is unusual if it goes against expected wisdom given the context of the scene, or a more extreme and exaggerated version of a reasonable POV.
It’s slightly different when thinking in terms of narrative or story based improv but not hugely. You’ll probably be seeing the same characters for more scenes and longer periods of time in a narrative piece, so the characters POV will most likely have a little more time to breathe and potentially may even change before the end of the story. In fact, seeing a character change their POV often signals that the story is finished or that we’re leading up to the finale.
I love using POV in improv shows. It allows the comedy and the fun of the performance to primarily rest on the characters and their interactions with each other. A strong POV also allows us to have fun putting these characters in situations that we know they will respond to. It means we don’t have to think too hard and can get on with playing.
Creating a Character POV
For simplicity, I’ll be talking in terms of a two person scene for creating a POV. One character will have an unusual POV and the other will be the voice of reason (a term I first heard from Will Hines, who I pretty much mention weekly these days. He truly is the big dog in improv). The voice of reason is also classically called the straight man, a term which hasn’t aged hugely well (debate me online in all caps like how all good arguments are settled) and probably doesn’t actually describe the role as well as voice of reason, so I’ll use this term going forward. This is by no means the only way to use POV but I find it the easiest to pull off.
1. The two players take the time to establish a context within the scene, so when one of the characters responds in an unusual or unexpected way, it is clear offer. The reaction will either be unusual or an extreme version of an expected response. Keep in mind, we have not yet established a point of view, just an unusual behavior or belief.
2. The two improvisers both explore this initial unusual response. Essentially with the goal of answering the question of ‘why’ or more specifically: why is the character behaving in this way? Through this we discover the reasoning behind the characters mindset and start fleshing out a POV. See below for more details on finding a ‘why’.
3.The voice of reason helps to develop the unusual character’s POV. Firstly, by playing at the top of their intelligence. This essentially means responding as if you were actually in that situation or at the very least, treating the unusual behavior as strange in the context of the scene. By doing so, they lampshade how unusual the other character is behaving. They can also be seen as a kind of emissary for the audience, saying the things and answering the questions on their mind.
Secondly, they will try to understand the unusual character’s POV. It’s exceedingly tempting to simply label the unusual character as just that, unusual and weird. You’ll actually probably get a laugh if you do this on stage, which is why it’s such a common pitfall. However, it means we never understand this unusual character, we never find out what their POV is and they become a one note character. It’s a fine line to walk, the voice of reason wants to understand where the unusual character is coming from but never completely be on board with what they’re saying and normalise their POV.
4. After developing the unusual character’s POV, find an opportunity for them to summarise it one sentence. Carleen Macdermid taught me a great way of doing this mid-scene, simply with the line “I’m the kind of person who…”. By saying it outloud in the scene we lose ambiguity and it becomes easier for the improvisers to play with the unusual character’s POV. It’s also great to repeat the character’s mantra if we ever feel that the POV is becoming lost in a complex scene.
5. Once we have an unusual point of view, playtime begins! We can now put this character into different situations where we can further explore and play with the unusual point of view.
Unusual Behaviour vs. Unusual POV
A difficulty many improvisers have when playing character POV, is mistaking unusual behaviour with Unusual POV, let’s look at this example:
A character that’s extremely polite. To the extent that the character will refuse to go first, will hold the door open for people regardless of how long it takes and will say pleases and thank yous to things that don’t require them (the last one is so British it hurts. TAKE THAT BRITAIN).
It is common that an improviser will find this unusual behavior in a scene and think that they have enough comic potential with continually playing politeness to an extreme. This can work for a time and while it can be a lot of fun initially, it will cause diminishing returns in audience response. It will get harder and harder to play with the character throughout the scene and if this once fun character returns in the show, they just becomes a caricature with a catchphrase that everyone will get sick of (TAKE THAT LITTLE BRITAIN).
Similarly, improvisers on the side or back line may do a tag run once they see this character’s unusual and fun behavior, putting them into situations where it would be unusual or funny to be polite. However once again this will most likely run out of steam and; even worse, the audience will be able to predict what’s about to happen before the players do or; even worserer (TAKE THAT BRITISH LANGUAGE), the audience will think of funnier scenarios than the players on stage.
To create the unusual POV, we need to know why the character behaves in this way. It doesn’t need to be too complicated, they just need a reason. One that comes to mind for the above example is that this character believes: People will like me if I’m nice to them. A simple, easy to play and relatable POV that massively opens up the possibilities. The players don’t need to wrack their brains to think up creative ways of being polite, they just need to put the character in a situation where they are going to go to extreme measures to be liked by the other characters. They can still keep the fun elements of being overly polite but they are no longer confined to doing nothing but repetition.
Finding a ‘Why’ Between Logical and Crazy
When talking to Mark, he said this to me “The hardest part for me when doing POV, is picking a ‘why’ that isn’t too logical, or too crazy, yet simple enough to play easily.” This is a great thing to be aware of. If you’re too logical with your ‘why’ it normalises the unusual thing immediately and if it’s too crazy it becomes complicated and hard to play the character well. So permit me a disgusting example:
A two person scene. Next door neighbours Biff and Chip are having a discussion about gardening. Through conversation it is revealed that Biff has taken a dump in Chip’s garden.
One justification for why Biff did this could be that he found out that Chip has been sleeping with his wife. This seems like a good shout and it can work but it has immediately normalised the once unusual behaviour of crapping in a neighbours garden. It’s not necessarily common behavior but this is the kind of thing jilted lovers can do. We completely understand that Biff wanted revenge on Chip, it’s easy to imagine this happening in real life and the once unusual behavior isn’t actually all that unusual.
Finding an example for an overly crazy ‘why’ for Biff’s actions is tricky because it really could be anything. When a why is too crazy, it’s often because it has nothing to do with what’s happened in the scene which causes a huge amount of work to bring everything together: Biff is trying to ward off aliens or it’s Biff’s form of worship. Both of these examples can work but you’ll be spending most of the scene trying to make these disparate elements come together.
The ideal balance is what I would call a logical leap. If it’s a logical step you end up with normalising the unusual thing. If it’s just a leap with no logic you are left with nothing but the unusual. To strike the balance, I recommend finding a stupid ‘why’ using childlike logic:
To compost Chip’s garden.
To make Chip’s garden ugly.
To assert dominance over Chip.
These are stupid and childlike ‘why’s and hit the balance about right. There is some logic to them but not so much that they’re no longer unusual. Here’s an exercise to practice these with your mates (or improv troupe if you have a strictly professional relationship:
A pair exercise I learned from Mr. Hines (AKA ‘The Big Dog’). One of the players endows the other improviser with an unusual behavior or choice (having a shark fin grafted to their back, drinking nothing but coffee for sustenance, howling like a dog whenever they see a cat). The other person justifies their unusual behavior or choice (to attract members of the desired sex, they feel fat and self conscious, cats are getting too relaxed in modern society). It is then up to the endower to act as the voice of reason and explore this unusual reason to find an unusual POV and discover the character’s philosophy. Once you’ve finished a scene, see if you can sum up the character’s POV in a sentence.
When being endowed, make sure accept the endowment as the characters choice. It’s tempting to say “A mad scientist kidnapped me and grafted a shark fin to my back” which justifies why it happened but doesn’t tell us anything about the character or their POV.
Thanks for reading! This is just the beginning when thinking about POV so I’d recommend working with the teachers mentioned above, as well as Mike OT who was probably the first person to really get me thinking about unusual character POV. All mentioned teachers aren’t originally from Britain? TAKE THAT BRITAIN. See? Diminishing returns.