Becoming Your Characters
“It sounds like you,” said my friend, the playwright, when I asked him about the script I had given him.
Coming from a successful writer, it wasn’t a compliment. If all the characters in your novel sound like you, maybe you should forget about the novel and write an autobiographical monologue instead.
You’ll find, if you listen to them, that your characters want to be free. They want to be individuals. Just like your children, they don’t want to be exactly like you. And, just like your children, they shouldn’t be.
Many fiction writers approach their work as an actor does his. When they are writing about a character, they become that character. Actors call it “Method acting,” based on the methods of Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky.
Method acting was a reaction to the nineteenth century tradition of making “rhetorical gestures” that were supposed to represent every human emotion. Writers can fall into a similar trap, where their characters act in clichéd manners, always “weeping” when they are sad, always “chuckling” when they are happy. (My characters are always “smiling.”)
The key to “Method writing” is to understand the character, then let the character live. When you know, even subconsciously, what the character is like, you will instinctively know what the character is going to do or say.
Some authors, like some actors, write out elaborate biographies for every major character before they begin. For others, such pre-planning would hurt their creative process. Indeed, as you write, even well-researched characters usually end up surprising you, as you realize that they aren’t exactly who you thought they were.
This may sound more mystical than it needs to. I’m not advocating a voodoo-like possession, where your characters take over your life. But a sensitive writer knows when an action or a statement rings true to that character or not.
Of course, if you’re not discreet as you work, people will look at you funny. One daughter of a famous nineteenth century novelist recalled how he would write his dialog out loud, playing each character in turn in fine theatrical style. After receiving that mild rebuke from my friend the playwright, I found myself working on dialog as I walked to work along a certain downtown street. I wasn’t the only person on that street talking to himself. Later I discovered that just around the corner was a shelter that catered to the homeless mentally ill.
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