Posts Tagged method acting
As some of you know I am still recovering from the flu. Also, the holiday season gets more than a little insane so it is always a joy to run across fresh talent to share with all of you. The bad news is that Alex Limberg lives in Vienna so taking him as a hostage? Can you tweet #logisticalnightmare? Good news is, apparently Austrians work for compliments and candy cigarettes #littleknownfact.
So, with my Amazon Prime Account, I was able to secure SWEET blog content and all of us could avoid any sticky international incidents with the Austrians.
Which is best for all because, well who doesn’t dig their pastries?
This is another guest post by copywriter Alex Limberg. To mix things up a bit, Alex is assisting me through the holiday season until he makes his New Year’s resolution to kick his candy cigarette habit *rolls eyes*.
…and then we’ll just have to catch him when he relapses.
His free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story helps you create intriguing novels and shorts. Have you ever written a character you thought you couldn’t portray well because he was too different from you? In this post, Alex lays out three secrets on how to make a character like that come to life. Please give him a hand once again!
The situation feels so awkward for you: This guy, you just can’t understand what he is all about.
You have really given your best to make it work.
You wanted to discreetly overlook his annoying sense of entitlement (from his perspective, you won’t ever get anywhere, because you are way too modest).
You tried not to judge his ridiculous uptight correctness (he thinks you have no manners).
And you really made an effort to explain that you don’t enjoy small talk and you feel happiest when you are alone with a book (to him, you are too withdrawn; he seems to even get a kick out of chatting with the sales assistant).
But you absolutely don’t understand him. It’s just that the two of you are so different.
The worst part is, you have an important project together and you will have to work with him for months and see him almost on a daily basis.
You have no idea how you will be able to work with somebody like this. Seriously, this will be bad.
But there is also good news: The guy just exists in your head.
He is one of the main characters in your newest novel. If you want to make that novel work though, you better get to understand him on a level as intimate as your very best friend.
Here are three highly practical tips on how to connect with a character who is very different from you:
1. Find the Perfect Template Person in the Real World
You would never step on anybody’s toes, but in your novel you have to deal with a very bold character?
For sure you know somebody who doesn’t shy away from collecting ten free samples at once or “accidentally” taking the hotel towel with him when he checks out (my brother even tried to take the sheets with him once, true story). How would that real life person feel in your scene, how would she act, react and express herself?
Some writers have used their husbands, siblings or parents in a dozen different books, in a dozen different ways.
It’s a lot easier to imagine how a person you know very well would act. All the experiences you have had with that person will tell you. Your intuition will speak to you. Just transfer that gut feeling onto your character.
Most of your characters will not be exactly as their real life prototypes, because after all you are writing fiction and not a biography. Instead, your figures will rather be hybrids of people you know; for example, as brilliant as your sister and as restless as your best friend.
Take from everybody just what you need. The more life experience you have, the more characters you have met over the course of your life– great! Society around you is just a big, yummy, neverending buffet of character traits. Feel free to feast at your convenience.
2. Don’t Act, Be!
In some way, writing is like acting– the difference is that you have to be all of the characters at once. Being able to switch between so many different shoes from one moment to the next is a major point that distinguishes great writers from not-so-great ones. Fiction writing is a bit like puppet theater.
Have you ever heard of “method acting”?
In method acting, you don’t try to pretend you are a different character. Instead, you just ask yourself: “If I was that cheerful/vain/sneaky/dumb, how would I act?”
The moment you are answering that question, you are already in a different headspace. You are doing what the best actors in the world have a gift for: They don’t act, they are for a brief moment. They are just for an instant as the character does his thing, but they are with all of their being.
It’s a step in between pretending and naturally being.
“Method acting” is actually an excellent way of auto-suggestion. Imagine you had a hypnotist make you believe that you are your protagonist. And that you are the antagonist. Plus that other really cool main character. And his wife. And a couple of supporting characters… you would be in the lunatic asylum for schizophrenics in no time, but you would write excellent prose.
That “self-hypnosis” is basically what you are doing when you suggest to your subconscious you are that character.
Ask yourself: “How would I act, if…?”
3. Remember a Situation That Brought Out the Opposite in You
We all have multiple sides to our personalities. The sad ones are sometimes joyful, the mature ones can be childish, and yes, even the dumb ones are smart sometimes, because there are very different types of intelligence.
So that trait your character embodies but you think you don’t, is hidden somewhere deep inside of you.
Here is how to bring it out: Think back to a situation in which you really, really felt that way. Maybe you usually don’t feel so confident, but that one time after you got your promotion or passed that exam in university, you felt on fire and were just invincible for the next couple of days.
Close your eyes, go back to that situation: What did the scenery feel like? What did you see, hear, smell? And how did you feel?
Try to tap into the feeling you had back then with your entire body. Yes, this might sound overly esoteric, but give it a try and see if it helps you. Breathe confidence when your character is very confident on paper– and take it from your emotional memory!
Adorn Yourself with the Most Beautiful Borrowed Plumes
So there you have basic advice on how to be somebody else. Don’t become schizophrenic, but keep on practicing your talent for wearing unfamiliar skin.
If you do this well, you have taken a huge step towards becoming a great writer. People love stories because they are fascinated by their characters. And if you can create intriguing characters, you readers will desperately have to know what happens to them next and will devour your stories.
Alex Limberg is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Create intriguing stories with his free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story or check out his creative writing exercises. Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter and lived in Vienna, Los Angeles, Madrid and Hamburg.
Now it’s your turn: How do you handle a character whose nature seems very alien to yours? Did you ever run out of patience with one of your figures? Are all your characters like you and you can hardly distinguish them, so there is never any trouble? Do you sometimes have long discussions with yourself in front of the bathroom mirror? Who wins?
Roses are red, violets are blue. I’m schizophrenic and so am I….and THAT NEVER GETS OLD!
Remember that comments for guests get double love from me for my contest!
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of NOVEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.
Last week we discussed one of the tactics used for creating great characters. The beauty of the Warrior Writer Boot Camp format, though, is that we appreciate that not everyone learns the same way. Not all tools are suited for all people. Thus, I would like to introduce you to another WWBC technique you can employ to not only create amazing characters, but also to craft believable scenes guaranteed to draw in the reader and never let go.
Now this doesn’t mean we have to take up living in a Dumpster for a month if we desire to write about a homeless person (though Daniel Day-Lewis would be proud), but it does mean that we have to use and develop our ability to empathize. Empathy can be defined as the ability to identify and understand somebody else’s feelings and experiences. But, it is also the ability to step into that person’s (character’s) perspective. Unless one is writing in omniscient, it will be critical to keep the POV camera where it belongs in order to gain the most impact from each and every scene.
I’ll give a few examples.
At critique, one of my dear friends and fellow writers brought a selection from his science fiction novel, which happened to be written in first-person. The opening scene is a robbery of sorts and his protagonist, like most sensible folk, dives under a nearby table and hides. The narrative that followed was very clever and engaging, but I happened to notice one HUGE problem. Thus, I raised my hand and asked, “How can your character know all of this detail if he is crouched under a table at the other end of the restaurant? The most he will likely see is legs and shoes.”
The writer had gone to great lengths describing details and events that simply would be impossible to see from the protagonist’s perspective. What my friend should have done (and eventually did do) was to have his character relying on other senses, since his visual sense was handicapped by situation.
It was a simple detail, but one that made all the difference in the eventual quality of the story. The writer, by stepping into an authentic perspective, made the experience visceral and real. Now he was SHOWING and not TELLING. With the right use of description, my friend successfully transported the reader under a table at a Chinese All-You-Can-Eat Buffet. Before we knew it, we were in the head of the protagonist, desperately trying to connect different voices and personalities to their shoes while searching for the nearest escape.
He greeted me the next week, beaming with pride for his reworked scene, bubbling with stories of him lying on his living room floor under a coffee table imagining what his protagonist would likely be able to see—method acting.
Another author and friend of mine brought a selection from his horror novel. In this scene, the protagonist (who starts out as a misguided petty thief) is with his buddies and they are robbing a convenience store right before a major hurricane hits. The Korean store owner pops out of nowhere, scaring the hell out of this motley group, and they take off toward the front door. Mere steps from freedom, the protagonist slips on rainwater that has spilled inside, and cracks his head on the counter, then floor. All good, but what followed was again a lengthy detailing of events that would be impossible for anyone in this situation to experience in this way.
Physiology would have taken over. That blow. The pain would have taken center stage. Voices would have become indistinct, and thus the sentences should have been shortened to a word or two to give the impression of someone who has been knocked senseless. Perspective would have changed. He (the camera) is now on the floor looking up. This needed to be consistent.
I challenged the author to think back to any time he’d been whacked in the head. Make a list of all things he remembered (or didn’t remember) of the experience. Stars in the peripheral vision. Blackness. Blurriness. Sounds. Were they dull or sharp? Pain. Sharp? Throbbing? Funny smells? What was the first thing he noticed when his head cleared? Voices? Faces? I advised him to then take that list and overlay it with the scene he wished to create.
One of the writers on Twitter bravely posted her prologue for public view. Being the nosy editor I am, I just HAD to take a look. This is supposed to be the beginning of a thriller—a young woman running from someone chasing her through a swamp. In this selection, I noted several oopses.
There is the weirdest time shift I have ever seen. It goes from being evening at sunset to pitch black in a matter of three sentences. There is no steady progression of losing the light and the desperation that would ensue from that (a missed opportunity to create growing tension).
The author describes it as pitch black, as in can’t see your hand in front of your face black…but then describes the crescent moon. Any moon (even a crescent moon) would offer some light and negate the pitch black—the author really should have chosen one for consistency. It is supposedly pitch dark yet the protagonist sees/describes quite a few objects and critters that she would need light to see. Which is it? Dim light or no light?
This character fears for her life. Yet, a handful of paragraphs down in this prologue, there is a very lovely description of a sunset. Big problem. How many people running for their lives through an unknown swamp filled with snakes and alligators take time to notice the “pastel sky?” When humans are under stress, the brain takes blood from the cortical brain and diverts it to the mammalian and limbic brain (and the large muscle groups). That is part of the adrenalin response. Fight or flight. Out of self-preservation, the body shuts down higher thinking capabilities while kicking primitive senses into hyper-drive. Thus, if one truly steps into the shoes of this character running for her life, it would be physiologically impossible for her to make such flowery observations. Reptilian brain cannot process information beyond the level of the five senses (and possibly a sixth).
The greater problem (and this is a style issue) is that this writer actually did a great job of creating tension. Yet, three sentences of poetic description of a sunset RUIN all that effort by pulling the reader out of the conflict.
Remember. Our goal as the author is to transport the reader into the head of our characters. Method acting is a way that we can create a genuine experience. There was nothing, per se, wrong with this writer’s prologue, but she missed great opportunities to create spine-tingling tension. When we step in the head of a character that has time to notice stars and sunsets and butterflies, we are subconsciously cued to not get too stressed.
Perspective is our greatest tool for creating great characters. We have to feel what they feel, notice what they notice so we can craft the world in which they live. This morning I edited a piece that had me banging my head on my keyboard. This author has a fantastic story, but his failure to truly empathize with his characters is KILLING—no, SLAUGHTERING—a great plot.
His female protagonist has just, hours before, witnessed her mother’s murder at the hands of Yankee renegades. Yet, nothing in her actions tells the story of a woman whose life has just collapsed before her eyes. She has romantic feelings for another male character. She is calm. She never gives the situation another thought. It is as if it is just another day of milking cows and saddling horses while making goo-goo eyes at the boy from town. Not only does this make her utterly unlikeable, but the reader doesn’t care about her losses…because SHE doesn’t care about her losses.
This writer, I know, is just excited to get the story rolling, but he is doing so at great expense to his characters. As authors, we have to think like actors (or profilers). We need to get into the heads of our characters and display the emotions properly. If someone is grieving, then we need to see that character going through the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Death and Dying—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. The event also must fit the character’s psychological profile. Is this character the kind who would stay in denial for years? Is she one to be angry? Would she get through all five stages quickly, or get stuck in depression? The writer needs to understand who this character is in order to slip into the correct head and craft the scene accordingly.
And this applies to the entire spectrum of emotion. Who is your character? I have heard people squeal and scream on the radio because they won free movie rentals from Blockbuster. Other people win ten million in the lottery and barely crack a smile. These are questions that have to be answered in order to craft believable characters and riveting scenes.
Warrior Writer relies heavily on learning from the experts, on drawing from unconventional sources of wisdom. It is a holistic approach that calls on the writer to dig deep inside to the true emotions, into the dark scary places where we are weakest and most vulnerable. Actors, in many ways, do the same. In fact, we could consider them to be the founders of our craft. Actors were the keepers of legends long before the authors. Actors kept stories alive on the stage and passed them on to audiences who would not be literate for centuries. We can learn a lot from their insight into the human condition.
Until next time…