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Monday, August 17, 2009

Character Development with a Theatrical Approach

The books that appeal to me most are the ones that have characters that haunt me long after I finish the book. Sometimes over the years, I forget the story line, but I still "feel" that character. That's the kind of book I hunt down in the bookstore.

Rather than a how-to post on character development, I'm going to get a little personal, if that's okay, and write about an approach that works best for me.

If you read authors' blogs or attend workshops, you've read/heard explanations of how they go about the writing process. Many reveal their secrets for character development, which include character diaries, personality plotting, character interviews, and psychiatric analysis/charts of their characters' needs. I use some of these, but I rely heavily on a different approach.

In addition to writing, I teach acting.

Character development in theatre is as critical as any technical aspect of the art. There are several schools of thought on character development in acting.

I was trained in and teach the Stanislavsky System of acting (also known as Method Acting). Constantin Stanislavsky revolutionized the approach to portraying a character. He believed that an actor's job was not just to make a character recognizable and understood, it was to make a character believable. A big change for the theatre world around the turn of the Twentieth Century. .

Simplistically described, Stanislavsky Method employs the recall of sensory and emotional memories from an actor's own experiences to deepen the development of a character. In preparing for a role, an actor will use sense memory recall to pull up emotions so that the performance is realistic and genuine. If the part calls for the portrayal of a person grieving the death of another character, the actor would call up memories of his/her experience that are closest to the scenario being portrayed. This is why Method Acting is not usually taught until late high school or college. The actor must be able to choose memories that he can handle and use effectively. If the recall of the memory is too intense, the performance could break down (and so could the actor).

I teach my acting students that recalling the memories and reliving them is not the final result. The technical aspects of acting must be layered on top. This is a hard part for many of them. Going back to the grieving scenario I previously mentioned: The student must take the memory of how it felt, sounded, smelled, tasted to be in the parallel situation from his own past and apply it on stage in a controlled manner. The body will react believably if the emotions are genuine. The end result must be a clean, believable performance that is consistent for the benefit of the other actors. Every action must be justified by a realistic motivation. "Why am I doing this? Why did I just cross to stage left?" It can't be because the director told him to do so. He must find a reason for the character to do it in order to believably accommodate the director's staging.

I really am going to write about characters in fiction. Really!

All this theatre babble was to give insight into how I approach character development. I apply the same principles instituted in Stanislavsky Method Acting to give my characters depth and provide motivation. I think many writers do this naturally. We put ourselves into the place of the character, whether it be human or non-human and try to relate to them. Readers do the same.

When writing a scene, I do just as I would were I playing that role in a play. I close my eyes (really, I do) and I ask myself the following things:

1. What experience have I had that is most like the scenario I am writing?

Most of the time, I've never been through anything remotely close to what my characters are going through (thank goodness), but I look for a similar or parallel experience.

For example, I've never been shoved through a window, but if my character suffers this, I would find the closest thing to it I have experienced. What is most is the most similar experience I've had?

My brother tripped me once when I was carrying a large glass fish bowl--a far cry from going through a plate glass window, but it still relates. It was a shock. It hurt like heck. The doctor had to pull a huge chunk of glass out of my arm, etc. Similar to going through a window in many respects. I would use this.

2. How did my own similar experience feel, sound, taste, smell?

In a quiet place, I would ask myself these questions. I don't put myself in the place of the character, I put myself in MY place in the past with a similar experience. I try to relive it exactly.

Back to the fish bowl memory:

How did the glass sound when it shattered? How did it feel when I fell, hit the glass, realized what had happened? Were there smells associated with it? How did I feel about being tripped? How did it feel when the doctor removed the glass from my arm?

Now, during all of this, I "relive" extraneous things like scrambling for the poor fish flopping in the bloody water on the floor to collect them and trying to dechlorinate water in a mixing bowl in time to save them (which I did) while my family screamed. Now a child saving fish while her family freaks is not at all like a character being shoved through a window by a bad guy (though I must say my brother seemed like a bad guy at the moment), but the sounds, smells, and fear compounded by the urgency to save the fish probably transfer perfectly to someone being shoved through a glass window. Just thinking about it and not even recalling it in a sensory manner caused my heart rate to increase.

3. How did the experience affect me?

If done correctly, the sensory recall will bring it all back as if it had just happened, and this question will be unnecessary because I will be affected similarly to when it happened. I don't have to remember how it felt, I will be feeling it all over again--making the event raw and real. This is the point at which and actor will work a scene and a writer will write a scene.

Stanislavsky Technique is more complex than this thumbnail description and the application is more involved in order to keep the character believable while keeping the performance consistent and effective.

I find the sense memory recall used in Method Acting is applicable to character development in fiction and works great for me, but just as with acting, the writer can get lost in the character at the expense of the final product. An intense, realistic, motivated character still needs to walk through a believable world in a well-written book. All are pieces needed to complete the puzzle.

Has anyone tried this method before? Do you have any tricks of your own for characterization?

Wishing everyone a beautiful week.


Mary Lindsey writes paranormal fiction for teens and adults. Prior to attending University of Houston Law school, she received a B.A. in English Literature with a minor in Drama. Mary is represented by Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

Mary also be found on her website and personal blog.


Dutch Henry said...

A lot of my characters are somewhat based on real people. Folks I know, relatives, and even people I don't like…at all.

Sometimes I use characters from novels and biographies I've read, movies etc, as a basis for a character. It's funny how scenes from a novel will keep forcing their way into my thoughts to keep my character in line! But as you say, we must try to make it believable, and consistent. And if we can't we must research, and study people and characters ways and mannerisms.

I do, like you, put myself in my characters, whomever I'm writing through at the moment, that's me. And that's when it helps to have personal experiences to draw on to make the character feel real, and memorable.

Great Post, Mary.

Gitty Up - Dutch

Unknown said...

Excellent post, Mary! I loved your theater babble because I can relate to it and easily apply it to my writing. Thank you!

AJ Richardson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AJ Richardson said...

I use the theatrical approach that Mary talked about. In addition, I find myself going through daily life experiences like a spliting headache or consuming anger and frustration, etc. I'll be in the middle of it, and think, hey I can use this. Suddenly I find myself with a pen in hand writing down everything I am currently going through.

Tara McClendon said...

I use method acting all the time to flesh out my characters. There are seriously times when my husband comes home and wants to know why I'm lying at an odd angle on the floor or jumping around like a maniac, and I just tell him "research."

Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

Quite an interesting post. I spent a lot of high school working in the theater club, and I like to apply what I learned there to my writing.

I guess the only problem I see with the Method Acting approach is what one director once pointed about when asked if he used it: "Unless you've slept with your mother, killed your father, and gouged out your own eyes, then I guess it means you can't play Oedipus."

But I think what you said about finding related experiences in your past is a useful variation on exact memory recall. And I am glad you've never been pushed through a glass door.

Anonymous said...

It occurred to me a long time ago that my writer instincts and my actor instincts were related, as both deal with becoming someone else, but I never articulated it this well. Good post!

Unknown said...

Okay, all I could focus on was the fact that you were able to save those fish while bleeding yourself. That demonstrates amazing thinking under pressure - my sister is a nurse practitioner and reacts like that. I just scream like a girl (I can say that because I am a girl) whenever I see blood. Great post - I studied that method in college many moons ago. :)

Tabitha said...

Fabulous post!!! I have a friend who does theater, and we've had some great discussions on character development. It's amazing how much cross-over there is between theater and fiction.

I use the same method for developing my characters, though I didn't know the name for it. :) It's so natural, though, and makes the character's experience that much more tangible.

Thanks for sharing!!

Paul W. West, Author said...

I like this. Thank you Mary. It validates what I try to do with my character development. I've been able to do this with both the protag as well as the antag.

Anonymous said...

I love this post! I act out my scenes before I write them, to get into the character's thoughts and feelings and body language and all the little details that just the written words would fall flat with. Of course I have to be alone in the house or in the car or something, or people look at me strangely... :)

Alyssa Kirk said...

I also 'act out' my scenes. Mostly I visualize it as a play (or movie) in my head, but I often say the dialogue out loud to make sure it works. I can also get my family to help me play out the physical stuff. I'm so glad to hear this is a good way to do things.

I also carry around a notebook and write down any info about something I'm experiencing so I can somehow relate it to my characters. My family will even prompt me to write it down when I'm going on about something that has happened to me. I'm not sure if they are trying to help or just shut me up!

I also love how you point out to use all of your senses to describe the scene!
Thanks for the great post, Mary.

Stina said...

Cool! I've been doing this and didn't realize it. I also visualize my characters acting out the scene before I write it down. Maybe my high school drama class paid off after all. ;D

Great post, Mary.

Anonymous said...

I pull as much as I can from real life episodes - sex in the park, talking to God on LSD, cutting my wrists in a moment of depression. Um...wait TMI. The intense ups and downs are the ones that stand out for me. And as far as the characters, I've done everything from picking a Hollywood actor/actress so I can picture them to choosing a soundtrack to listen to (Radiohead's IN RAINBOWS was a recent one, or old Cure for a dark story I wrote). Great article, really makes you think.

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Judith Mercado said...

In developing my characters, one of the most helpful TV programs for me has been Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipset. I have often used many of techniques interviewed actors have described on this program to "get into" my fictional characters.