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.