Acting Lessons: Becoming your character
When it comes to rounding out characters, writers can take a few cues from actors
Published: March 22, 2005
|I'm sure you have all heard about becoming your character. Some writers use acting techniques not only to become their character as they write (thereby anticipating reactions and personality quirks), but also, before writing, to develop their character's psychological profile. The result? A well-rounded, fleshed-out main character that editors (and readers) will love.|
Here's a sketchy character description and plot situation: Brianna is a 10-year-old girl, extremely bright but painfully shy. She's nervous about a school spelling bee.
For practice, let's use the following exercises to bring Brianna to life.
Lesson #1: TALK IT OUT
One of the first things editors do is to skim a submission for effective, realistic dialogue; words that sound like they would actually come out of your character's mouth and not like they were placed there by an interfering writer. How do you think a girl like Brianna would speak? With a quiet voice or forcefully? Using a lot of slang or a more sophisticated vocabulary? What would she say when told that there was to be a spelling bee in front of the whole school?
"In front of the whole school," Brianna repeated quietly to herself. "Oh, no."
Using either my example or your own, say Brianna's words out loud the way you think she would.
Lesson #2: ACT IT OUT
Now, think of a specific emotion, situation or motivation and react to it. Move. Physically act out your response. Notice the difference between how you respond versus how your character would. Try out various scenarios and go with the reaction that seems most natural for the fictional character (not for you). Write it down. Feeling your character in this way actually can help provide plot direction (what happens next) and move your story along. In our story, I started wondering how Brianna would try to get a handle on her nerves.
Brianna hid in the restroom stall during recess, sucking in deep breaths to calm her heaving chest.
What do you think Brianna would do? Act it out.
Lesson #3: WRITE IT OUT
It's one thing to jump around, make faces and generally carry on as you act out your character. Now comes the hard part-putting that action into words. You want the readers to relate to the character's emotional state. You want them thinking, "Yeah, that's what it would feel like, I've felt that exact way."
The secret lies in the use of specific active words that capture your plot moment. Don't make the mistake of droning on and on in descriptive passages; you'll end up throwing readers off track, or worse, boring them. Plot moments are best described with a single small gesture or beautifully fitting word of dialogue. Feel your scene first. (Imagine the look on Brianna's face when the teacher called her up first for the spelling bee.) Act it out. Then, describe it as succinctly and accurately as you can:
Brianna's teeth were clenched so hard she felt as if her jaw might lock.
Armed with your new acting skills, go forth and emote, dramatize, feel your words. You may annoy the real people nearby, but your made-up ones will heartily appreciate you.
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The author of several books and numerous articles, poems and stories, Ellen Macaulay teaches at the Institute for Children's Literature. She lives in Foster City, Calif.