Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Actors and Characters

Picture from stock-xchng taken by Scott Liddell
So many times I have no idea what I’m going to blog about until I read Sheena’s post.  In fact all The Prosers have inspired me to write a blog topic at one point or another (thanks ladies, I hope you don’t mind), and today is no different.  Sheena’s post yesterday on being an actress made me think of what I learned about characterization from my drama classes I took in high school.

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.  :)



  1. I was never an actress, but I do agree that the actor can make or break a part. I hate all the girls in the transformer movies. They are beautiful but boring to watch, unless your a man and want eye candy of oourse.

    I agree Harrison Ford was Indian Jones. He has charisma that even in tinseltown is rare.

    1. Yeah, I'm wasn't fond of those girls in The Transformer movies either, but there is something very likable about Shia LaBeouf (who played Sam). Those movies would have bombed without him, IMO.

      Yeah Harrison Ford is very charismatic. So is Will Smith, and both of them are phenomenal actors on top of it. That is very rare.

  2. I can't really add anything. This is such a great post. I always learn something from you, MaryAnn, and feel incredibly lucky to know you. Just like every actor has a different way of portraying a character, every writer has a different point of view when writing. I love getting an inside look at how you and the other Prosers do things, because it gives me new techniques to try out. Thank you for sharing, and for inspiring us.

    And all I can say is, thank goodness for Magnum PI! I can't imagine anyone but Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones.

    1. Thanks Trisha. I feel the same way about all of you guys. That is my favorite part of being apart of this blog is getting insights into how all you talented prosers do things. :)

    2. Me too! I never would have thought about how the skills of an actor could enhance my writing, but I'm excited to use some of these ideas in my own writing. Thanks!

  3. Never heard of Magnum PI but Tom Selleck looks similar to Harrison Ford enough that I probably wouldn't care about it from a physical perspective (as I'm sure some of the ladies do). But Ford definitely brought the character to life with that grumbling mumbling voice of his.

    Excellent post, MaryAnn. It made me want to make a list of all my characters and sort and explain them and I'm usually against any kind of classification.

    1. Tom Selleck is a good actor and very charismatic. I can see why they offered the part to him, but he's no Harrison Ford. He's more like Tom Cruise IMO. All of his characters are very similar, and he plays that type of role well, but I'm not sure if he has the acting range that Harrison Ford has.

  4. Okay, I've been thinking about this all week, trying to figure out something i can add.

    *Ten minutes pass.


    The number one thing I came up with is focus. Actors on stage live in the world of the story. They have to put everything else away, no waiting for phone calls, no thinking about dinner, about problems, about trips to the grocery store. When you are on stage, nothing else matters except for telling the story, and fulfilling your part of the story.

    When you write, you don't have ten thousand people watching you, (thank goodness, since so much of the time I write in my pajamas), but that doesn't mean that your words won't be read ten thousand times. I think for me, I don't often treat my writing time as seriously as if opening Word meant stepping into the spotlight. For me, that's the lesson. When it is writing time, you need to shut out the world, live in the story you created for the amount of time you can carve out, and treat it as sacred. No checking pintrest, or facebook, or hatrack while writing, because honestly, that's just bad acting.

    1. Excellent advice Sheena, and one that I'm ashamed to admit I really needed.

  5. I like what you've said about giving characters someplace to go. I've read some books where the emotional journey comes to a dead end, and then it just drags. Have a starting point and a destination...that's good stuff!

    1. I like how you described it better than I did, but that is exactly what I was thinking, "emotional journey come to a dead end." There is no place to go after that.

      Thanks for commenting.


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