Acting for Real

30 09 2011
Emerging Faces

A person is born within the synapses.

I was scanning Sue Bolich’s blog on building really believable characters, beyond stereotypes.  Outlines?  Lists of character traits?  Hmmm.  How about creating the character by becoming the character?

In order to write good dialog, I have these strange, schizophrenic conversations with myself, alternately assuming the personae of the characters involved.  I guess I’m letting my subconscious do the work, instead of frontal cortexting outlines, lists of traits, favorite flavor of ice cream and all that.  When I’m inhabiting the character, I know he would detest gardening because it would get his fingernails dirty, or that she would react to the death of her dearest friend with a kind of quiet objectivity that pains her more than would an uprush of genuine grief.

I know how Tristramacus would stand, pace, gesture, and it’s very different from the way Mirramarduk would stand, pace and gesture.  They would insult each other in very different ways.  They would react to those insults distinctly.  I know this from standing, pacing, and bellowing as Tristramacus, and from sneering, gesturing and acidly retorting as Mirramarduk.  I notice how I’m holding my hands, how my body moves, how my face looks, what words come out and how I say them.

The acting method is limited only by one’s ability to play roles.  I have a musician, a quiet fellow, whose brain sings with music, fantastic music, roiling, soaring, sizzling, silvering melodies, harmonies, weaving and wandering between his ears every waking minute of the day.  He’s a rather ugly hound, but gentle and loyal.  Likeable.  Always a best friend, a sidekick, a confidante, never a lover.  Never raises his voice, never gets exasperated (or at least never shows it).

I have another artist; this one works in the visual medium, primarily painting but also working in wood, stone, glass metal.  Over the years his obsession with perfection, with his own genius, with his ability to take the abstract concept of beauty and make it manifest in the world through acts of creation, has wrought in his head an exquisite insanity.  He is arrogant, violently misogynistic, toxically in love with a physically beautiful male whom he ultimately murders so that age cannot destroy his lover’s perfection.  He sees the murder as a heroic act of spiritual redemption.

One must be able to play all these different roles, feel genuine within them, and then see what one’s acting instinct comes up with for characteristics.

Then comes the hard part: Choosing the words that will communicate to the reader what one sees so vividly.  I have spent a lifetime learning how to make language properly convey what it is that I am trying to say.  Writing and rewriting.  Never completely satisfied.  Perhaps I would have been better off on the stage.

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5 responses

1 10 2011
Sunder Addams

This reminds me of a process the members of my writing group used a few times. It’s called the Character Autopsy. All of us but one would select a character from our fiction and get into character as that individual, as deeply and completely as we could. The remaining person, the moderator, asked the autopsy questions. We answered in turn, writing our answers down.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember the source of the Character Autopsy. Perhaps someone else will recognize the term and remember. The first questions the moderator asks of each character are, “Among your acquaintances, what is the most common misconception about you? When it comes to your personality as a whole, what is the most common misconception?” Note that the character is assumed to be compelled or highly motivated to answer truthfully. According to the Autopsy instructions, the answers to these questions reveal the character’s persona–the face s/he presents to the world.

Does anyone know the source of the Character Autopsy?

1 10 2011
justinegraykin

This is a technique that’s been around in education for a little while anyway, one of those things you do with students in Creative Writing classes (at least that’s what I know of it). I have no idea what the source might be. Great way of bringing a character to life.

This brings up another point: an exercise like Character Autopsy works great in group. How many of us writer types would feel comfortable doing it? I’m sure I’m not the only one who acts out dialogue and scenes, but it’s generally in the privacy of my workspace. I know I’d feel at least somewhat hung-up if I found myself with an audience evaluating my performance.

5 10 2011
Trish

I love using the Character Autopsy, myself; I think I’m the one who introduced it in the writer’s group I share with Sunder *waves to Sunder*. I learned this in a writing workshop I took at a local night program some years ago. I also come to writing with an additional gaming background… where my GMs normally receive 7-10 or more pages of character background including favorite drinks (one of the CA questions) to demeanor vs actual personality (usually something you have on character sheets anyway.)

I’ve done this in both a group setting and through online chats. (I don’t find it nearly as fun doing this alone.) Like described above, someone is the moderator (though, the moderator often also takes part) and asks the questions. Each of us assume our character’s persona and replies… and, in the online realm of chatting/messaging, we also allow our characters to occasionally go off on tangents and interact with each other based on the questions. We type/speak with the character’s cadence and grammar, too. (Ok, maybe most of my writing friends I do this with are also gamers at heart; in-character interaction is part of the territory).

A lot of the acting tricks are great for writers, in general, I believe. My husband was in his glee club at school, so he has a bit of an acting background… but he is also an engineer with a strong need for authentic details; he makes a great partner to help me work out fight scenes that balance the dramatic flourish for art but don’t make an actual martial artist want to throw the book across the room in frustration.

5 10 2011
Justine Graykin

Thanks, Trish! I know I’d have a ball doing Character Autopsy with you. And there definitely does seem to be an RPG element to this.

5 10 2011
Sunder Addams

True, one should generally avoid doing anything that causes readers to throw the book across the room.

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