Characterization in a Hurry: From Laban to Larp

Characterization in a Hurry: From Laban to Larp

[This article is also available in Spanish, at:
Thank you to Vivologia for translating it!]

The Laban efforts[1]Schiffman, J. 2001. “THE CRAFT: Mechanics of Movement – Laban Theory can help actors suit the action to the word.” Available online: [accessed 16 October 2019]. are a method of describing movement used by primarily dancers, but also actors when working on the early stages of characterisation. They are essentially eight “personalities” of movement which you can use to easily distinguish different roles from each other. Laban efforts are a particularly useful way of creating a distinct character quickly and can also be used in larping, especially if you know you’re going to be interacting with the same players multiple times under different guises, or if you’re in a group of similar non-player characters (NPCs) that you still want to appear distinct from each other.

Dancing dervishes (photo, revac film's&photography from Pexels

Dancing dervishes (photo, revac film’s&photography from Pexels)

Everybody finds different techniques work for them, but this is one that I find particularly helpful in a larp setting, so maybe you will too. Also, I only know Laban from other people passing it onto me. I don’t understand it in detail, but I know enough to dabble. If what you read here interests you, it’s definitely worth doing some more research.

The simple version of the efforts is that there are essentially different pairs of words that describe movement. And if you take one word in each pair, you end up with a combination that can be given a name to describe that style of movement. The pairs I like to work with are:

Heavy      Light

Sudden      Sustained

Direct      Indirect

Bound      Unbound

Let’s go through each pair. When you’re building a character, it can help to choose these aspects one by one and try out that kind of movement before adding the next bit. Otherwise, the movements are quite a lot to think about at once.

Heavy vs. Light is probably the simplest choice. Does the character seem to have their focus downwards (heavy) or upwards (light)? Do they leave an impact on the world around them (heavy) or do they barely seem to touch it (light)?

Sudden vs. Sustained. This is sometimes also known as fast vs. slow, but it doesn’t really describe speed; all the efforts should be able to be performed at all speeds. I prefer to think of it like the character’s visual attention span. Do they perfectly complete every action before moving onto the next (sustained) or do they react instinctively and without thought (sudden)? To me, there’s a certain elegance to sustained movement and an idea of fast-paced thought with sudden movement.

Direct vs. Indirect is the pair I find hardest. Does the character move in straight lines (direct) or curves and spirals (indirect)? Do they find distractions on the way to their goal (indirect) or do they ignore everything else but their objective until they have reached it (direct)?

Bound vs. Unbound. Sometimes this pair is omitted, as it is kind of an optional extra called “flow,” but it’s my personal favourite pair. Flow describes the manner in which a movement is performed and, to me, this is often the aspect that makes a character come alive. A bound character will have very closed body language with a lot of tension present in their body. An unbound character is free, with an open and generally more relaxed body.

Five women lying on the ground (Photo, Skitterphoto from Pexels)

Five women lying on the ground (Photo, Skitterphoto from Pexels)

Laban described eight efforts corresponding to choices made between the above pairs. The efforts each describe a movement which is characteristic of the three factors chosen. For example a heavy, direct and sudden movement is described as ‘punching’. This doesn’t mean that a character who moves with that effort will constantly hit others, but keeping the idea of the ‘punch’ in mind, is a simple way to reduce its three components down into something more instinctively performed: it is simpler to think about walking in a way that is similar to a punch than it is to walk in a way that is heavy, direct and sudden.

If you try them out with their name in mind, you’ll see that each effort almost seems to have its own personality. At that point, you can see how giving one of the efforts to a role can be such a quick step to characterization.

So, give it a try. Walk around as a Flicker or a Presser and see how different it feels to your normal way of moving. Try to think of the kind of character it evokes. And just have fun – larp is a hobby, not a job. I’d never recommend doing this for every single character you play, that just sounds exhausting. But if it seems to work for you, then why not try playing your next character or NPC with a Laban effort and see how it feels?

Cover photo: Red human face monument (photo, Mike from Pexels)

Content editing: Elina Gouliou

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1Schiffman, J. 2001. “THE CRAFT: Mechanics of Movement – Laban Theory can help actors suit the action to the word.” Available online: [accessed 16 October 2019].


Erin Marsh is a games organiser and theatremaker based in Hull, UK, creating immersive and interactive experiences with a focus on innovative uses of digital platforms. Erin is part of the Bobbit Worm Games collective and interactive theatre company 1UPSTARTS.