Want to creative realistic, jump-off-the-page characters that grab your readers by the noggin and worm their way in? Try method writing. I consider it the antecedent of method acting, since writers have been around much longer than their stage-treading counterparts. In fact, there would be no actors without writers coming up with memorable dialogue.
Method writing is simple, but it can be emotionally exhausting. You need to get inside your character’s head and pick apart what makes them, well, them. For me, this sometimes happens organically as I write, but only for characters with whom I strongly identify. Let’s face it, with them I am really writing about me, after all.
What about characters that are stark opposites to your personality? In order to write them authentically, you need to access your shapeshifting powers, slip into their skin and see how it really feels to be them. Here’s how I do it:
Method Writing 101: Becoming Someone Else
This exercise is one that’s a favorite among method acting coaches. For writers, it trains you how to focus on your five senses and how they combine for an overall experience. This focus will help you when writing about a character’s environment or what he or she is feeling sensorially in a given scene. There’s what to do:
- Get a mug of your favorite warm beverage.
- Observe it without touching it; use only your senses of sight and smell to determine how much there is, how it might taste, and how the cup might feel in your hand.
- Now pick up the mug and notice if your eyes were correct in observing the feel of the cup or the weight of it.
- Move the cup from hand to hand and hold it in varying ways. Noticing how your fingers, wrists, and arms adjust as you change grips.
- Sip the drink and hold it in your mouth. Notice the temperature, the taste, the mouthfeel of the beverage. Notice how your lips feel on the side of the cup and how your tongue moves in your mouth as you drink.
- Swallow, noticing how the liquid feels going down your throat. Notice all the small things your body does in order to swallow.
- Put the cup down in front of you.
- Now repeat the exercise using an imaginary cup of the same drink. Concentrate on feeling the same sensations that you did when you had the real cup in front of you.
To write believable characters that don’t share your own personality style, you have to take their nature back to basics.
Let’s say your character is timid and apprehensive about everything. You are not timid, in fact you’re more of a “bring-it-on” kinda person in real life. How do you write a believably frightened character? Everyone, no matter their personality type, has experienced the basic emotions of fear, happiness, love, anger, hatred, etc. You just need to observe these more closely so you can apply them to your character. For Mr. Timid, do this:
- Think of a time when you were scared. It could be anything: you almost drowned, a huge hairy spider dropped on your head, you got lost in the K-Mart when you were 5 and you thought you’d never see home again. Got it? Good!
- Now, think how you felt in those situations. What did you feel physically? Did you shake? Scream? Turn white? Laugh? What about mentally? Did you wish for help? Did you blank out?
- Now expand. Your timid and frightened character won’t wait for a major event to freak out — he freaks out a little bit all the time. Take some of the adjectives and physical and mental descriptions you used when illustrating your terrifying event and apply them to his or her everyday activities: driving to work, meeting with the boss, taking a yoga class — whatever you need him to be doing.
Hopefully, these exercises gave you a taste of method writing. Join me next week when we’ll explore a few more to really help you “get into character” when you need to.
See you on the next page!