Creating an Artistic Persona
August 4, 2008 4:32 AM   Subscribe

followup to this question: how does one create and develop a persona?

I'm referring to artistic/entertainment personas, such as Borat and Ali G - where performers actually take on a whole new personality as part of their work.

How are such personas developed? Are they carefully planned out, or do they organically develop? How much of the persona is developed before being performed (for example, does Borat have a detailed childhood history?)? Is it much like creating a fictional character for stories, or is there some other process?

Along with that, how are the other aspects - fashion, style, mannerisms, talents, accents, etc - of the persona handled? Does someone that want to make an artistic persona usually go to classes to learn all those skills? Where do they get it from?

I've emailed Empress V (who performs in Brisbane as A Wonder Woman, amongst others) and she's given me some good advice, but I'd like to know of any other perspectives and resources. Google doesn't turn up much and my local libraries don't have a lot on the topic either - where and what topic should I be looking for?
posted by divabat to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Development of a particular persona is one of the basic elements of clowning. If you're not too terrifed of clowns, that might be a good topic to look at. From what I recall, from a lot of it is just You written large. Shy? A shy clown might take that and develop an act of physcially hiding behind people so as not to be seen (and failing outrageously). NB IANAC
posted by Sparx at 5:08 AM on August 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

For some people, it's just a combination of being a fiction writer and then a performer. Create a character and then perform it. I think Sasha Baron-Cohen is in this camp.

For others, it's one of those "occult" talents where the character comes from somewhere inside- look at Frank Caliendo. The way he switches between characters and comes up with things to say on the fly, he has to almost be "channeling" the character. They learn to think as their character, I think.

Kevin Matthews, a radio guy, is similar. He has a character that he does called Jim Shorts. Back in the day, in the crazy radio 90s, it was insane. He could have real conversations with the character, even to the point of cutting himself off with the character. At some point, the character had his own characters. But as he got older, calmer and angrier, the character just wasn't the same. Now he was just doing a funny voice.
posted by gjc at 5:28 AM on August 4, 2008

There are also plenty of actors who do this. There are worked-out methods for actors, most famously Stanislavsky's system. A good introduction is "The Practical Handbook For The Actor."

The basic message of Stanislavisky is that if you base your character on silly walks, accents and clothes, your performance will be empty inside. Certainly, your character needs an outer appearance, but he/she also needs an inner life. Stanislavsky gives you a step-by-step method to develop this.

His method is based around acting in scripted plays, but much of his system applies to improv, too. Improv is the other skill to master. Most cities have improv classes. Look for "long form" ones.
posted by grumblebee at 5:40 AM on August 4, 2008

This probably isn't a science. Your character will likely develop and evolve as you play it, and you'll get more and more into it to the point where spontaneity becomes easier.

I'd study people who do this sort of thing for ideas. And I'd write down a page or so of stuff about your character and then just start practicing at home.

They learn to think as their character

I'd say so. Stephen Colbert did rather well during the writer's strike because he's just so good at playing the wilfully ignorant fictional Stephen Colbert.
posted by orange swan at 5:43 AM on August 4, 2008

You might also look at Steve Bridges. He has the advantage of having his characters already written, but still....
posted by Autarky at 7:11 AM on August 4, 2008

This has more to do with getting into an existing character than developing a new one, but I think it's relevant. Many actors have some sort of trigger word or phrase that they use to get themselves into character as quickly as possible. I remember Peter Jurasik saying that when he needed to get into Londo Mollari (his character on Babylon 5), he would use the phrase "Meester Garibaldi" to get his character and accent in place. I think Robert Smigel uses "That's a nice ***...for me to poop on!" to get into Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

Personally, I haven't had much call to do any characters since high school, but I often used similar phrases, especially to get a hold of voices or accents. Some voices (especially impersonations) I could never pull off outside of a few key phrases (I have a pretty decent "Kermit the Frog here, reporting directly to you from ***!", but I can do nothingp else with that voice), so I would never use them for a character that has to do anything off-script, and I would have to practice incessantly to be able to even pull off a few scripted lines. So my recommendation would be to pick something that comes easily to you.*

If you're using the character for something silly, then you can be a lot less accurate, of course, but you still need to be consistent. You don't want to float in and out of character, so sometimes you should just let certain natural tendencies choose aspects of the character. If you find yourself making some bizarre vowel substitution whenever you attempt a particular voice, consider making it a standard part of the character's voice, etc.

*Also, when it comes to voices, you want more than just an accent. It's very unlikely that you'll be able to pull off a realistic accent without enormous amounts of studying and practice. If your character voice has other qualities not related to regional dialects and accents, this will be less noticeable.
posted by ErWenn at 8:37 AM on August 4, 2008

A class I took presented a method for this as a means of moving one's constraints to behavior. The method goes something like this: 1) identify a barrier to your behavior that you would like to change; 2) write in your own words, then read aloud how you would behave in a situation where the barrier is present; 3) write in your own words how a person would behave in the same situation if the barrier were distorted; 4) try to identify a personality archetype of that person. With this exercise came a list of personality archetypes like warrior, inquisitor, teacher. Lists of archetypes are easy to find online. 5) Examine these archetypes and see if any are acceptable to your present persona. 6) If you find one, see if the writing in 3) is consistent with that archetype. 7) Detail other characteristics of that archetypal persona that apply to you. This is your proto-persona. 8) Before you go into the situation where the barrier arises, think of things you can do from 7) that reinforce the persona; then do them within the situation and see whether your barrier does in fact seem less threatening or solid.

This worked for me.
posted by jet_silver at 9:31 AM on August 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

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