Acting out: Two exercises help fiction writers get in character

Actors use all kinds of exercises to help develop their characters for various roles. For example, actors create what they call a “morgue,” a large collection of photos of interesting-looking people, which they can refer to in establishing a character. Fiction writers can borrow these techniques from their actor counterparts. I’ve done so for years, …
By Roy Sorrels | Published: May 7, 2012


To find your character's unique voice and intuitively understand his point of view, try a technique from an actor's bag of tricks.

To find your character’s unique voice and intuitively understand his point of view, try a technique from an actor’s bag of tricks.

Actors use all kinds of exercises to help develop their characters for various roles. For example, actors create what they call a “morgue,” a large collection of photos of interesting-looking people, which they can refer to in establishing a character.

Fiction writers can borrow these techniques from their actor counterparts. I’ve done so for years, and I’ve found the following two exercises to be particularly powerful tools.

Exercise 1: Create a morgue.
1. Clip photos of intriguing characters from magazines and newspapers. Try for pics in which you can see not only an interesting face but also something of the world in which that person lives. Collect lots of pics: men, women, old, young, maybe even a few animals!

2. Put it to use as an actor would. A popular exercise in acting classes goes like this: The instructor hands out photos from her own morgue to her students. The bubbly blonde might get a photo of a craggy-faced, bewhiskered old farmer; the Brad Pitt look-alike might get an overweight, greasy-haired waitress lugging a heavy tray.

The acting teacher and other students then ask the bubbly blonde and the Brad Pitt guy for more information: “Tell us about where you sleep.” “Do you love being a farmer (or a waitress), or is there something else you’d rather be doing?” “What are your hopes and dreams?” “Whom do you love? Who loves you?” “What are you most afraid of?” And so on.

Magic starts to happen. Each of those acting students starts to become someone else—the old farmer, the exhausted waitress. They begin to answer not only with the character’s words, but with the character’s voice, too. Their movements change. Their minds become inhabited by the characters they’re becoming.

As a writer, you can unleash your inner actor to do the same thing. If you have a writing partner, she can ask you the questions; if you don’t, you can ask them of yourself. Then, when you’re in character, you can write as the character. You’ll intuitively know what she is thinking and feeling, and how she moves and speaks.

Exercise 2: The “long woolen underwear” trick.
This is another acting technique, popularized by the great acting teacher Michael Chekhov. Start by creating a detailed imaginary picture of a character—or of your first-person narrator. Imagine him standing right in front of you. Close your eyes and visualize.

Then “put him on” as you would climb into a suit of long woolen underwear—one leg at a time, then the arms, then the body. You’re now in that character. And you can speak, and write, with his unique voice.