Posted by: J. Thomas Ross | February 14, 2012

The Author as Actor

 

Life is a continual process of learning and discovery.

So is writing.

That’s what makes both ever new and interesting … and fun!

 

I’ve spent my life learning and teaching, both formally and informally. The teaching-learning process is a beautiful thing, for it is all about sharing; about spreading information, knowledge, and experience across the family of humanity; about connecting the present to the past and the future. Being a part of this process is exciting and rewarding.

After more than thirty years in the teaching profession, I retired … from the profession, that is, but not from teaching itself. My teaching now involves helping other writers make their work the best it can be. Most of what I share about writing has been learned from others who have willingly passed their knowledge along. Paying it forward gives me a great deal of satisfaction — and occasional frustration, when what I’ve learned isn’t enough to help.

Sometimes, however, I figure out something all on my own ~ a glorious moment of discovery!

That happened last week.

As a writing group member, critique partner, beta reader, and editor, I frequently read stories where I feel distanced from the point-of-view character and, thus, do not care much about what happens to him or her. No matter how interesting the plot and idea, without an emotional connection to the character, the story seems flat.

The reason for this problem, I felt, was that the writer did not know the character well enough. This had once been a flaw in my own writing, which another writer kindly pointed out to me. I suggested that my fellow writers do detailed character studies that would include all the character’s background, family, education, work/school history, likes and dislikes, hobbies, interests, attitudes, desires, fears, motivations, and so on.

In other words, a few paragraphs describing the point-of-view character are not enough. A writer must know the character’s history and hidden depths as well as those things apparent to the other characters. Most of these things will never appear in the story or novel, but knowing them helps the writer create a full-fleshed, three-dimensional character instead of a wooden puppet.

Writing in-depth character studies works for me. Often, however, even after some of these writers did as I’d suggested, I still felt little connection to their characters. I couldn’t figure out why. I admit — sorry friends! — that I privately wondered whether they really had done the character analyses. If they had, then why wasn’t this working for them?

Then came my eureka moment last week. I was actually in the bathroom getting ready to go out [channeling Archimedes?] when the pieces fell into place, and I realized that knowing the point-of-view character intimately was not enough.

At the Writers Coffeehouse [a free forum hosted by the Philadelphia Liars Club and held the last Sunday of each month at the Barnes & Noble in Willow Grove, PA] in January, I had talked to friend and actor Keith Strunk. Part of our conversation had me thinking about actors getting into the heads of characters for the roles they have to perform. I could relate to this because I get into the heads of my point-of-view characters every time I write. I’ve always done this; it’s as natural as breathing for me, and I can’t conceive of any other way of writing.

As I stood in front of the bathroom mirror that morning, I realized that this might not be true for all writers — that the reason I feel no connection to the point-of-view character in some writers’ stories could be because they are writing from outside the character’s head, not inside. No matter how well a writer knows the point-of-view character, the reader will feel distanced from the character if the writer is distanced from the character as he or she writes. A writer, like an actor, must get into the skin of the character, see what the character sees, experience what the character experiences, and feel what the character feels. When a writer does that, the character comes alive and the distance is removed, allowing the reader to feel close to the character and, thus, to care about what happens in the story.

I didn’t run out of the bathroom shouting “Eureka!”, but I could hardly wait to share my insight with my critique group. And as I mused over the possibilities, I realized that getting fully inside the point-of-view character’s head could also help eliminate other problems I frequently see in manuscripts, such as:

  • having the character act in a manner contrary to the character’s personality [making the character do what the author wants, not what that character would actually do]
  • slipping into another character’s thoughts or point of view
  • including details or events that the point-of-view character could not know [for instance, what is going on behind the character’s back or outside the room]

It’s vital for an author to both know the point-of-view character intimately and to get inside the character’s head when writing.

How do you get inside your character’s head as you write? Do you find this an easy or difficult thing to do?

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Responses

  1. I think acting and writing go hand in hand, indeed! I always acted out my parts that I created and still do…sounds silly, but I read dialogue back and forth from each character and pretend I’m on a stage doing it for an audience. It helps to get inside their heads (the characters not the audience! LOL) and catch any phrases that sounds awkward or out of character.

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    • What a great idea, Donna. I usually do that in my head, but sometimes I get up and act out movements to see if they’re feasible.

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  2. Hey J, thank you for posting this piece. It spoke to something I was already feeling, but wasn’t quite grasping entirely; and it has given me some direction to follow. I’ll be visiting this site often, now that I’ve taken the time to “click on the link” and actually read an article.

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    • Welcome, Michael! I’m glad to hear that the piece has given you some direction. And I empathize with not having enough time to check out all the wonderful information out there. An extra couple hours a day would help but probably still not be enough!

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  3. I am working on a short story from the POV of a serial killer. I researched serial killers under the question ‘What do murderers think?’
    The results are to me at least, a little scary.
    I’ll be publishing it at louisesor.wordpress.com under the title Code Redd probably tomorrow, late.
    Could you look at it and tell me if you think I caught the character? If not, back to the drawing… keyboard.

    Like

    • That’s a challenge, Louise, but that’s what makes it fascinating. Obviously, it’s hard for a writer to get into the mind of a serial killer or villain. When you think about it, however, unless all your characters are exactly the same as you, you cannot identify with every aspect of those characters. Sometimes my point-of-view characters are boys or men, and I will never truly know what it’s like to be a man any more than a man can truly understand what it’s like to carry and give birth to a child. But our characters are human beings. They all get tired and hungry and thirsty. They all have wants and needs, likes and dislikes, worries and joys, fears and motivations. Those things that make a character human are the things readers can identify with and are the writer’s key to getting inside a character who may be very different in personality and otherwise hard to empathize with.

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  4. This is great advice. There are times where I really do get deep inside my character’s head, but sometimes I’m in a rush to finish a scene and fail at this. I know it shows in my writing when that happens and this was a great lesson and reminder on what to do right.

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    • Thanks, Susan. It’s always a pleasure to know that a post has helped someone!

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  5. […] It’s a lot harder than it sounds, at least for some of us. J. Thomas Ross did a wonderful post on Author As Actor that describes the process and problems of getting into character—or […]

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  6. […] It’s a lot harder than it sounds, at least for some of us. J. Thomas Ross did a wonderful post on Author As Actor that describes the process and problems of getting into character—or […]

    Like


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