Beyond the Funny Hat

Beyond the Funny Hat

When larping, players don’t always wear costumes, and even when costumed, a character ought to be more than a funny hat. Here, we offer practical ways to flesh out how a character moves and speaks, in the hope of making it easier for you to do so.

Analyzing your Character

However much or little information you receive on the character you will be playing in a larp, you will probably form a mental image and decide where you want to take them. The aspects which define a character are numerous, so a list of identifying traits is a good start, if you know how to translate them into your play.

Walking the Walk

Once you have an idea of how the character should appear to other players, there are different aspects to consider when defining those characteristics. This section will focus on bearing, posture, gait, and breathing(An interesting tool to consider when designing motion aspects is Laban Movement Analysis (sometimes: Laban/Bartenieff Movement Analysis). For larp purposes, LMA has been written about by Erin Marsh in the Nordiclarp.org blog (see bibliography).). When making these choices, it’s good to consider the difference between internal and external perception. Does the way I move or hold myself convey the meaning I want it to, or is it just in my head?

Bearing, Posture, and Gait

Inner perception or posture can affect your outer bearing in a useful way. Putting yourself in the right frame of mind translates well into the way you stand, sit, or walk. Practice in front of a full-length mirror or film a video: seeing the effect helps you calibrate it.

If you struggle with finding your own, copy signature mannerisms from actors. E.g., for arrogance in servitude, look no further than Stowell, Alun Armstrong’s role as a butler in season 5 of
Downton Abbey[1]https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3962976/fullcredits?ref_=tt_cl_sm#cast, 21. October 2019. Films and TV offer many such examples for a variety of traits.

Gait, the way you walk, contributes a lot to a character’s general appearance. Walking on the balls and toes of your feet, keeping the heel off the ground will make you appear slightly taller, more willowy, and lighter on your feet, while stomping heel first can seem more decisive. Experiment!

As a practical example, take the run of the Shakespearean larp Forsooth, where, for the major role of a count (we’ll disregard for the purpose of this paper that a funny hat was worn), arms and hands were held a certain way: shoulders down, upper arms closer to the body, lower arms outward, palms turned more or less upwards, which might have been sustainable for a longer time. In contrast to that, a butler/servant character was portrayed as bent over forwards and partly sideways, with a rounded back, hunched shoulders and the head thrown back, so as to always seeming to look up at his ‘betters’ – this works for a limited amount of time, but remaining in that role over several hours on end, let alone days, might well have ended painfully.

Be aware that while a more or less obvious limp is a sure way of changing the look of your gait, it really shouldn’t be done for comedic effect, but rather have a medical or possibly psychological reason in the character’s background. “It looks different” is not a reason, it’s lazy characterization.

Breathing

You can also use breath for character building. Slower, more pronounced breaths can suggest frailty, which can underline old age or some ailment or other; this is something Holger used in
Bunker 101 (Chaos League), playing a character who had aged beyond the societal limit for being supplied with anti-radiation drugs, by pausing to “catch his breath” or coughing every now and then.

Talking the Talk

Your speech pattern is an easily recognisable characteristic, and changing it up will affect both how others perceive your character and how you perceive them in relation to yourself. Speaking differently will increase the difference between you and your character.

There are many elements to speech — tone, volume, register, speech pattern, etc. Your tone is connected to the way your voice travels through your body as you make a sound: a tone can be nasal, if you speak a lot through your nose, or raspy if the sound travels up your throat in a certain way. Volume is, as indicated by its name, the volume with which you speak; you can whisper or shout. Your register is the part of the total human vocal range your voice moves within; someone with a deep voice has a lower register than someone with a high voice. The amplitude of the register varies from person to person — trained singers have usually developed a broader register than someone who mostly uses their voice for everyday chats. The speech pattern is all other little quirks that mix into the way you speak; your accent, potential stutters, a lisp, using certain words more than others (e.g. “like” or humming a lot) and so on.

All of these vocal elements can be changed, though some (such as broadening your register) require more practice than others. The easiest are tone, volume, and minor speech pattern alterations. Although changing the way you use your register when you speak is effective, it can be hard to avoid slipping back into your “vocal comfort zone” as the larp goes on without constantly having to focus on the way you speak.

Tone

Changing your tone of voice is simple, and does a lot for your character portrayal. This allows using people’s unconscious biases (e.g. “soft people have soft voices”) as quick shorthand to enforce your portrayal. A snooty character might have a nasal voice, a scarred warrior a raspy one, a caretaker a soft one, etc. Be aware, though — raspy tones can damage your vocal chords and result in a sore throat if done incorrectly, so avoid those unless you know how to use them safely. Remember you will have to sustain this tone for hours or maybe days. The further away from your natural tone you go, the more challenging this is going to be.

Volume

Volume speaks volumes — we alter our body language depending on how much space we are comfortable claiming for ourselves, and the same happens to the volume with which we speak. A self-assured character will not have a problem being loud, while a confused or shy character will speak quieter, maybe even whisper or mumble at times.

Speech Pattern

The most cost-effective speech pattern changes are small. What are your character’s favourite words for expressing joy, anger, awe, etc? Do they often lose their trail of thought mid-sentence? Perhaps they interject themselves with constant uhm’s and eh’s, or click their tongue a lot? Think of a few quirks and try combining them. Decide what to keep and what to scratch — less is more, especially before you get used to playing with your voice. Play around until you find a voice you feel suits your character, while still being comfortable to maintain. If it feels uncomfortable, change it. A sore throat, cough, or loss of voice never made anyone’s larp experience any more fun.

Avoid fake accents: they are difficult to do well, and even more difficult to do without engaging a lot of unintentional, misguided, or outright offensive cultural stereotypes[2]The same goes for stereotypical speech impediments, such as stuttering. A disability is not a costume.. Perhaps you are willing to put in the required effort, but let’s be realistic — we always leave larp prep to the last minute, and no one is going to believe that Scottish accent practiced overnight. Instead, focus on original, smaller changes!

Sustainability and Safety

If the physical and vocal tools you’re employing need to be sustained for the duration of a larp, consider both the safety and health of the player. The length of the larp and your physical fitness may reduce the viability of some choices. For example, certain changes to tone and register require a lot of work and risk damaging your voice if practiced without professional guidance — especially over a longer period. However, if you are a trained vocalist, you may already know how to safely experiment with these. For every technique we present here, players should ask themselves whether it’s sustainable for the purpose of the particular larp and/or role they want to use it for.

Conclusion

Now that you have assembled the bodily and vocal identifiers for the character, remember that practice makes perfect. You may not have the chance to do that for a mini larp, but before going to a bigger event, try combining the different aspects you chose, putting yourself through the expected emotional states of the character, imagining situations they might need to react to; and see how your design holds up to all of these. Practice your character voice and movement around friends to see how you’re able to sustain them during intense social interaction. Be honest about them, don’t be afraid to discard those not up to your expectations, be creative, be safe, and remember to have fun!

Bibliography

Erin Marsh (2019): Characterization in a Hurry: From Laban to Larp, https://nordiclarp.org/2019/11/11/characterization-in-a-hurry-from-laban-to-larp/, ref. Feb 23rd, 2020.


References   [ + ]

1.https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3962976/fullcredits?ref_=tt_cl_sm#cast, 21. October 2019
2.The same goes for stereotypical speech impediments, such as stuttering. A disability is not a costume.

Authors

Holger Pick
Holger Pick (b. 1972) is a German Murder Mystery Dinner actor and translator. Holger started larping and GMing when there were battle boards. Internationally, he wrote and edited characters for Midwinter and The Last Song.
Sagalinn Tangen
Sagalinn Tangen (b. 1998) is a Swedish-Norwegian second generation larper and larp designer. She attended her first larp at age ten and designed the first of her own at seventeen.
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