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AEC v1.0.4

Discussing a Bit with Matt Holmes – Differentiation

by Matt Holmes

Disney character designers followed a rule: make the characters distinguishable in silhouette. Matt Groening followed that rule for his Life in Hell characters (including a distinctive one-eared rabbit) and again when designing The Simpsons (you can’t mistake Marge Simpsons’ hair).

  • The Teletubbies have one-of-a-kind antenna shapes atop their otherwise-similar bodies.
  • The Power Rangers have uniformed costumes, shapes, and sizes, but their different colors are highlighted.
  • There is no Betty Rubble vitamin, because she’s too similar to Wilma. Instead, there’s one shaped like the Flintstones’ car.

The point of this rule is differentiation. You don’t want your audience confused about the facts of the matter, who’s who, or what happened to which character. It’s a good tip to make your characters different.

If you’re telling a story about your wife and her sister, don’t let the listener get lost about who said what.

  • Stand-ups and storytellers will clarify by using different voices, postures, gestures, and locations. They’ll stand in one place as one character and elsewhere as another character, or even just face different directions.
  • In improv, sometimes one person will play multiple characters or multiple players will trade off playing one character. They use distinct or exaggerated traits to make it clear without anyone having to think about it.
  • You don’t want a story about your crazy aunt to be too similar to a story about your eccentric grandmother. Even if it’s a true story, you might want to adjust it or even just combine them into one character.

These examples are basic and visual; that’s the lowest level of clarity. You don’t want confusion. A higher level than just basic clarity involves getting into the emotions, subtexts, backgrounds, and other personality traits. More than just keeping track of your characters, you want to say and do something unique with each of them.

  • If two different characters serve the same purpose, it might be more efficient to have them boiled down into one. This happens sometimes when a story is translated from book or stage show into a movie.
  • In a longform improv show, if you start off with clearly different scenarios, you’ll reduce your chances of having to do the same kind of scene twice in a row. Plus, it’ll be more impressive when you weave them together later.

More than just how they look, you’ll often see characters fitting different roles or even clichés and stereotypes. One will be the leader, while another will have a darker anti-hero tone.

One might be dumber, smarter, scared, sexy, hungry, scheming, or have some other wacky caricature to help differentiate them. You might see “the girl” as a token stereotype or even two(!) female characters (usually in Ginger/Mary-Ann roles; it can be rare to find real, unique female characters that get fully utilized).

Main characters act as an avenue into the story. We see from their point of view and know more about them. If everybody is the main character, then nobody is. If a supporting character is more interesting, we’ll wish it was their story instead.

And it’s not just characters that you want to be unique.

  • If you have two sketches that are similar, you might want to combine them or go in different directions with them or just break them up so they’re not back-to-back.
  • If you’re doing a bunch of improv games, create an even mix of lengths, styles, and audience-interaction.
  • If you have a bit about how people tweet stupid stuff and another bit about how Pinterest projects never work right, figure out how you can make those jokes different from each other.

Many different people have played the character of The Doctor on Dr. Who, and though they’ve brought their unique take on it, they’ve maintained a consistent line and a consistent personality by repeating what makes the character different. Conversely, The Facts of Life started with a bevy of characters that disappeared, condensing the show into fewer unique roles.

Keep an eye out for how characters are differentiated.

  • If you see a movie where an actress has a different hair color than normal, it might be because they didn’t want her confused with another character.
  • If you see characters with bows, glasses, or hats, it’s probably to help make each character unique.

Differentiation matters in storytelling, and all comedy (all communication) is telling a story. You can have similar pieces that work as part of a larger whole, you can segue from one thing to another by having things overlap, you can have characters that are similar on purpose if that’s your point, you can tell a story with parts that aren’t 100% unique. Just be aware of how you differentiate this from that.


Matt Holmes is an improviser in Philly. He performs a full improv comedy set with a complete stranger from the audience in Matt& (“playful and winning” –TimeOut Chicago). He also teaches improv, coaches improv groups, and co-founded Rare Bird Show (“Top Shelf Improv” –The Apiary, “arguably the best improv group Philly has ever produced” –AV Club).

Look for the next installment of “Discussing a Bit,” Matt’s monthly WitOut column, on March 1st.

Have a comedy issue or theory you’d like Matt to examine? Email alison@witout.net.

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