Earlier this year, I met a writer who was also an actor, from whom I received some interesting writing advice.
It happened during a session of the writers’ group that I run. At each meeting, we discuss a specific writing-related question that all attendees are given a chance to answer.
The question du jour inquired which element of writing craft folk felt they needed to learn more about.
When it came my turn to answer, I said character voice.
Specifically, the fact that I wanted to someday write a sequel to my WIP from the first person point of view of a different character, but was unsure how to make the voice distinct from the first person narrator of my WIP.
Hearing this, the writer-actor proceeded to question me about the character: is it a male or female character? What does s/he do? How was his/her upbringing? To which I replied it’s a nobleman’s daughter in a medieval setting who has a bit of skill in swordfighting, and disguises herself as a male – and a mercenary – to run away and achieve a certain objective.
The advice I was given? To put myself in a similar situation as my character: to spend some time in a dojo or fighting school – preferably one that actually teaches swordplay – that is frequented predominantly by men.
Furthermore, while doing so, I was told I should dress very masculine, as if trying conceal that I’m female, just as my character does.
The purpose in doing so? To actually get into character. To experience life as she would and see what sort of thoughts and emotions it produced in me that I might use to inform the character’s narration.
In short, he recommended a bit of Method acting to help me in my writing.
Or as he called it, Method writing.
How does that make you feel?
I am no actor – a fact clearly evidenced by my having once been told on a performance review that it’s very obvious when I dislike a given task.
However, this surprisingly, wasn’t the first I’d heard of what’s also known as the Stanislavski Method, as pioneered by Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavski (which was later adapted for American actors by Lee Strasberg).
(While in university, one of my housemates was an English/Drama double major, and used to hold rather vocal study groups in the middle our living room.)
But as I said: I’m no actor. I wouldn’t know how to be anyone but my awkward, deadpan self if I wanted to.
Thus, upon receiving the writer-actor’s advice, I initially dismissed it out of hand. For what could I possibly learn from trying to turn awkward, deadpan me into awkward, deadpan cross-dressing me?
Plus I could already fairly imagine how it would feel to hang out in a gym with a bunch of musclehead men, and wasn’t overly keen to make the experience a reality.
That writers’ group meeting probably would’ve ended my brief flirtation with acting theory right there. But recently, I read an article on acting theory that has me thinking about it all over again.
I can’t actually recall what the article was about, where I read it, or even what it was called, so I can’t even look it up again (or link to it).
All I remember is that it discussed two distinct styles of acting: classical acting, in which actors are influenced by their observation and study of real people and how they react and express themselves in specific situations.
And Method acting, which, beyond just “getting into character”, involves an actor using his/her own past experiences and emotions as a guide in the portrayal of a character.
And so it was that I made a happy discovery: even if I never avail myself of an all-male gym as recommended, I already am something of a Method writer.
For I mine my own feelings all the time to write the emotions of my characters, especially my main characters.
And especially as I get older and continue to deepen my emotional well, experiencing firsthand many of the darker emotions that heighten a story’s conflict – jealousy, betrayal, regret, the desire for revenge.
I don’t need to guess at what certain emotions actually feel like nearly as much as I used to.
Method writing also helps improve my writing at the sentence level – at the image level. I always want to describe a character’s emotions and reactions in creative, non-cliché ways.
It’s far easier for me to do this for things that have actually happened to me – to hold that memory in my mind while thinking up a suitable comparison – rather than having to rely on someone else’s description of an experience – a description, which, depending on the format in which it’s presented, may itself be rife with clichés.
Most writers, I suspect, use Method writing in at least some capacity, for who could we ever know and understand better than we know our own selves? Other people we can study and get to know as much as they’re willing to share with us.
We see ourselves both inside and out.
Particularly if a writer has led a full life to date, his/her own emotional spectrum can provide a rich source of insight into numerous aspects of a character. Not the least of which is the character’s voice.
How much do your past experiences and emotional states influence how you write your characters? Have you ever intentionally done something extreme to “get into character”? Tell me about it in the comments.