|Picture from stock-xchng taken by Scott Liddell|
I’ve been thinking about blogging about this for a while now ever since I wrote this blog post on characterization. I thought that maybe some people would find it interesting if I shared what I learned about characters from my very very limited acting experience. But now that I’ve learned that Sheena was a drama major in college and Trisha spent a year working as an actress, I feel a little intimidated about writing this post, but…I’m going to do it anyway. Cause I got nothing else.
So Sheena and Trisha please chime in and share your expertise. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
Okay, now after that lengthy and insecure introduction, I’ll get started.
Acting isn’t just memorizing lines. Actors create the characters as much as writers do. It really is amazing to see the same play done with different actors. They say the same words and tell the same story, but each actor brings something different to the role. They create something truly unique.
The role of Indiana Jones was originally offered to Tom Selleck, who had to turn it down because of Magnum PI. It is hard for me to imagine Tom Selleck or anyone else really as Indiana Jones. Harrison Ford truly took that role and made it his, and I’m not sure if the movie would have become so iconic if it hadn’t been for his performance.
My point is that actors know as much if not more about creating realistic, memorable characters than we writers do, and I really think that there is a lot we writers can learn from them.
1. Motivation is the key to creating a believable character. The phrase I heard over and over in every drama class and every play was, “what is your motive.” Every actor needs to know what their character wants, and not just in the overall play, but in every scene, every word, every movement. Stage direction is given to provide movement, but the actor must give that movement meaning.
I’ve blogged many times before that knowing your characters’ motives is essential for good characterization, but I’m going to say it one more time at least (probably more). You need to understand what your characters really want, what they think they want, and what they are in denial about wanting in every scene, every movement, every word.
2. The small movements are important, but can be overdone. In my drama classes, a lot of the students (including me) struggled with what to do with our hands. The director gave us those big movements like sitting down or crossing to stage right, but we had to figure out those small movements. It was tough. Too few movements and the character seems too stiff, but too many wild gestures and the character looks comical, both of these extremes can make the character feel unnatural (unless of course the character is supposed to be stiff or comical, then it works J). Ultimately, every actor needs to find the right balance. But those small movements were more than just making the character look natural. They can convey thoughts and meaning that aren’t in dialogue. They are a way of subtly showing character.
Balancing small movements is important in writing too. Too little movement and you get talking head syndrome, too much movement and the characters seem twitchy, but just the right movement at just the right moment can show aspects of a character’s personality that can’t be shown in dialogue or even internal monologues, especially when the character thinks they want one thing but really want something else.
3. Be in the moment. There are a lot of things to worry about when you are performing on the stage. There is remembering the lines, the cues, the stage direction, and sometimes, gaging the audience’s responses. A good actor needs to be in the moment. He can’t worry about what is coming next or what the audience is thinking, he has to be that character at that moment and think of nothing else. The audience can tell when the actor is not completely immersed in his character.
I’ve found that my best writing comes from being in the moment. I find that I have to go over every scene at least twice. The first time just trying to get down on the page what happens, but the second pass, I try to immerse myself in the character and imagine what exactly she/he is seeing and thinking. I can’t always tap into that, but when I do, I can feel it and I think the readers can too.
4. Always give yourself somewhere to go. I mean emotionally, not physically. I’m not sure if this has a technical name, but it was acting advice that always stuck with me. No matter how angry or sad the character is, you always leave room for the character to get angrier or sadder. If you give all your anger to the scene, your character can’t get more angry, and you will have no place else to go. I don’t know why, but the audience can feel this. The scene loses tension because the audience knows that you’ve reached your limit. So you need to hold back some of the anger or the sorrow or whatever the emotion your character is feeling, so the audience always feels that tension that things can get worse.
I think this is true in writing as well. I’ve heard the advice of torturing your characters. Trap them up in a tree and throw rocks at them. I think we do need to let our characters suffer, but we also need to hold back a little to. Take them to the brink of being broken, but don’t break them. Let the readers feel that as bad as things are for the character, it can still get worse. Keep that tension going because once they’ve hit rock bottom, there is no place for the story to go but up.
So those are the lessons I learned about writing from my brief experience with acting. I didn't have a very long acting stint, but I'm thankful that I was able to take something away from it besides just having lots of fun. :)