Make It Original, Make It Yours
Developing Set puppet characters can be a fun way to get and keep team members involved. For them to know that the character they do is their character and no one else can do it gives them a sense of pride and responsibility to the team. I always suggest that every team member create a character; whether they use it or not. This will really come in handy when the team does return engagements and uses a set character because audiences will know if the puppet is being operated by the same puppeteer or not. If something such as the voice is changed, audiences pick up on that if it hasn’t been a long period of time between performances.
Another reason for having set characters will come when you are writing scripts. By knowing the character and how they act and speak, it will be easier to write a script that fits that puppet character.
Not all puppets are so descriptively named that you have a visual picture of them before even seeing them, such as Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, or Allie the Alligator, so the appearance of a character needs to give insight as to what that character is all about.
Is your character a surfer dude? Then the puppet needs to be wearing a Hawaiian shirt and mop top style hair. Likewise if the character is supposed to be distinguished, he or she will not be dressed like a surfer. Clothing is an important part of the character. This is not to say that the clothes cannot change, just make sure that the clothes make the man (so to speak).
It is a definite added touch of professionalism to give the character specific mannerisms and personality quirks to make him or her more believable as a living entity.
When developing a character, take everything into account. How does the character walk, how does he or she react to situations, do they have an annoying habit? Give each character something that is completely that character. Cookie Monster’s obsession with cookies, The Count has obsessive compulsive disorder when it comes to counting all of the time, etc.
Voices can be one of the most important aspects of a puppet’s character. It is fine for a puppeteer to use their own voice for a puppet, but if that puppeteer is doing more than one character then it becomes confusing when multiple puppets have the same voice. Also, the voice of the puppeteer might not match up with the character the puppeteer is trying to portray.
I say this, but then I will also add this addendum, the puppeteer doesn’t need to have a wide vocal range in order to create different characters. It is easier than it appears to alter one’s voice enough to create a new character.
Here are a few ways that team members can practice changing character voices.
Nasal, by forcing the words through the nose
Breathy, by letting air out with every word
Falsetto, by speaking far above the normal range (don’t go too high though).
Hoarse, speaking in a scratchy lower tone. Warning, this can cause issues with your voice if you do it for long periods of time.
I also suggest mimicry. Try to copy cartoon voices or voices of people that you know.
Note: You may not sound like them, but you will develop a character voice that you can fall back on. One of my first character voices came from me trying to sound like Goofy. It doesn’t sound like him, but to this day I still refer to that voice as my goofy voice and to do it, all I need to do is try to impersonate Goofy and it comes back to me.
Vocabulary and Accent
Your puppet’s character affects the way it will speak. Going back to the surfer dude example, the puppet is not going to speak with a Harvard accent. The puppet’s personality and history that its creator gives it will determine how it speaks.
Put it on Paper
Don’t just develop something in your head and run with it. This is a good way to create a character that will not last.
Answer these questions:
What is the character (human, animal, alien, Etc.)?
Where is the character from?
How old is the character?
What sex is the character?
What is the character’s favorite (fill in the blanks)?
What does the character sound like?
What is the character’s level of education?
These questions will lead you to answer more questions and before you know it, you have your character developed.
After this, you should have a pretty good visual of what your puppet looks like and from there you can make a sketch if you are creating the character from scratch or find the clothes and props needed to adjust a pre-existing puppet to fit the character that you have in mind.
One Final Note
The same puppet can be given different personalities and passed off to different team members to work with when the puppets are in short supply, but there still needs to be another personality and physical appearance given to the puppet so that it is obvious to the audience that the character is different. You may have the surfer character go off to find his “cousin” who is visiting from England. Soon after surfer puppet exits stage, his cousin comes in. The cousin is the surfer puppet, but is wearing a suit and speaks with a British accent.
Have fun and even if you create a character that you never use, it is always good to have it on file for possible future use.