The great thing about puppets is that you can create a character completely from scratch. There is no actor's body already there to work around. You determine the body, the face, and the mechanisms to make it move. But, all that flexibility often just raises the terror of too much choice. Trying to make a puppet do everything leads to bland puppets. The trick is to give the puppet just exactly what it needs to fit into the story. Luckily, creating characters is something that has a system to it. The system takes time and thought, but considering the time it takes to make a really great puppet, some planning time is worth it.
Begin by 'feeling' my way through the story. What is the range of feelings the character holds in the story? Sad to happy? Afraid to triumphant? Eager to cynical? In only the simplest stories does a character have only one feeling associated with them. Usually there is a transformation from one set of feelings to another. The big secret is to give the puppet character an ability to move between the feelings necessary to make the transformation.
Once you know the set of feelings you need, you can start to create. Begin by imagining a line that expresses the feelings of the character. It might be a wiggly line for a sly character, a very rigid line for a strict character, or a bent line to show some sadness. Ideally, you'll need two lines for the character to move between to show the transformation. Sketch them out, bend them into wire, anything that lets you experiment quickly and easily, without the material getting in the way.
From a line, the next step to give the character a shape. In other words, how much space does the character take up. What kind of space is it? Working from the line, fill out the character. Some take up lots of space, some very little. Some characters carry their weight high, some low. Some characters have a round space, some flat, some square, some jagged. There are no hard and fast rules. Try out several until you end up with something that works. My favorite tools are a piece of thick, bendable wire and a couple of pounds of plasticine. I'm not trying to make a finished puppet, even an armature, just a bent wire and big lumps of clay. It's something that lets me play with lines and space until the character emerges.
Once you have a line and some space, you are on your way to a character. But something is missing. A puppet with only line and space is still a dead puppet. Life is rhythm. Stops and starts, changes of direction, quickness and slowness. (I've learned to be careful about what music I'm playing when I'm designing a puppet. Somehow the rhythm of the music gets into my design. I can't explain it, but it's true.) The puppet I'm designing will move one day and it's good to match it's movements to the feelings it will need to express. Begin by tapping out the character's rhythms. There are usually at least two of them. Since I do hand puppets, I very quickly go on to move my hand in the rhythm. I'm not trying to make the puppet run, walk, or anything specific. I just move my hand in space and try to get the feeling I'm looking for. This is the time to try and catch the character in the act of transforming from one feeling to another. Perhaps it's a quick jagged rhythm followed by a slow, heavy beat. The puppet has to be able to show both rhythms well and make the transition between the two seem natural.
Putting it together
Coming up with characters is more about play than work. It's trying a hundred things and only using the best one or two. When you're done, the separate concepts of line, space, and rhythm have joined together into a whole character that has a range of feelings. You have the look of the puppet and know what movements it will need. It may be nothing more than some wire with lumps of plasticine doing a silly little dance, but it's on it's way to creating a living, feeling character. Now it's time to transform it into a puppet.
These ideas and more will be presented in my workshop - Creating Stories from the Heart - at PoA's National Puppetry Festival: 2001 a Puppet Odyssey, in Tampa, Florida.
(Thanks to Paul Baker whose ideas shaped how I look at characters, art, and life.)