3 Lessons the Great Stanislavski Taught Us About Characterisation

StanislavskiCharacterisation is yeast. Without it, your bread novel turns into a pancake yawn fest. But building well rounded characters that are captivating enough to keep readers up till 3am finishing your book can be a bit of an enigma.

If you’ve hung around long enough you’ll know I like to draw inspiration from all branches of the crazy tree.

Today, I’ve pilfered methodology from a thespian.

I know. I know. *Gasps dramatically* “But we’re writers. We’re introverts.”

*ahem, technically I’m not. Something about a mix up at the sperm bank, don’t tell anyone.*

But whether you’re introverted or not is irrelevant. It’s the methodology that’s important, not the acting itself. Although if anyone fancies throwing a little skit at the Bloggers Bash, I’m more than up for whipping out my inner diva…

Constantin Stanislavski was a Russian actor, director and all round smarty pants. He developed a model to train actors to act. Specifically, to improve their characterisation in order to make their portrayal of the written characters more believable.

There’s nothing like a bit of reverse engineering to sharpen your pencil…I think there are three key lessons we can take from Stanislavski to help us improve our written characters.

Stanislavski’s entire system was built on the principle of embodying characters to the extent that the actor becomes not the character, but himself, as though the character were real.

In essence, Stanislavski wanted realism. Natural performances that made the audience believe it was real.

Writers get stuck behind their desks. A LOT. These lessons aren’t new, so much as they encourage you to step away from the keyboard, and be present. Mindful. Experience shit.

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Image curtsey of pixabay

Lesson One: Experience

The driver behind Stanislavski’s system was emotional memory. The ability to draw on ones past experience. I mean, sure. Don’t we all do that as writers?

But memory is like dementia. And yes, I meant the pun. It’s foggy at the best of times. I can’t remember this morning FFS, let alone the intricacies of an emotion I felt last week. Yet, that’s exactly what we’re trying to replicate when we write emotions in our novels. If you’ve ever struggled to convey emotion then put down the pen and step away from the computer.

Start a fight, tell your partner you shagged the secretary at work, book a trip to a strip club, buy the book on sheep droppings you’ve wanted for ages. Whatever. Just ‘feel’ for real, the emotion you’re trying to write about.

Next time I feel jealous, or excited or get that familiar bubbling of rage, I am going to stop. Mid fight if I have to, and take notes. I mean, fuck it. Everyone knows I’m a writer, I’ll call it research, it may even stop a row!

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Image curtsey of pixabay

Lesson Two: The ‘Magic If’

Writers use this one all the time. What if, the sky was really a hologram? What if my protagonist got hit by a car? What if aliens invaded Earth? We ask questions to drive conflict and create plot.

But what if we made things a little more personal?

Stanislavski, believed actors should ask themselves what if they were in the same situation as the character they were portraying, or what they would do if they found themselves in the same situation as their character.

Although it’s a good question, we can’t wield lightsabers all day. Besides, most of the characters in fiction are exaggerated. And I mean that in a good way. In order to make the written word come alive, we have to describe everything from, feelings to smells, sounds and the scenery.

 

When I sit there writing scenes for my main character, I do actually ask myself that question, but I’m not really answering as me, I’m answering as them. Maybe we have already achieved Stanislavski’s system. Perhaps writers are really just actors.

My point is, maybe I should actually just stop and check, would I really knife that person in the eyeball? Probably not. If I wouldn’t then would my character really do it? It’s a stop and check kind of question, but what it does is serve to ensure you keep the realism to your characters.

Lesson Three: Motivation

For Stanislavski the last and possibly most important aspect of characterisation was motivation. He  believed actors were influenced either by their minds or their own emotions. So he would make actors analyse characters in the script to find the source of their motivation.

But the same method can be applied to us and characters. We’re writers for god sake, we’re meant to introspect.

Try and think about the last time you were jealous, or angry, or bitter. Why were you feeling like that? What did it feel like? Let me know in the comments. What did you do? If anything? Was doing nothing an action in itself? And if you did nothing, why?

Motivation is at the core of every character. Readers see through characters without a motivation faster than they can turn the page. It’s because motivation is a characters ‘why’. It’s the reason they exist. The reason they push the plot on to achieve their goal. Without it there’s no meaning to their actions. Stanislavski was right. It’s not just actors that need the know the motivation of their characters. We writers do too.


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69 comments

  1. There is a certain amount of me in my characters. It can be expressed in how I write or what I write about. My situations inspire certain poems or stories; or what I listen to or see causes an unlocking of an idea.

    This can be quite random.

    I do write from the heart. But, these posts are not the cheery stuff of dreams. They can be deep, dark or dour. They are not the works that I like to write, it’s just that sometimes I need to purge a feeling or a thought out through my words.

    Madness lies that way in some respects.

    However, like this comment, not thinking too deeply before you write allows you to write from a shallow perspective – and maybe once in a while a truism is let slip.

    Thank you for the above words upon Stanislavski, I am a very shy extrovert and at times sequel like a mouse before roaring like a lion before effecting a dumb show a la Marcel.

    Whether this makes sense of not I do not know; but, take my thanks, enjoy the show.

    G:)

    1. I agree, there is a lot of me in my characters too – although not all me obviously. I know what you mean about some things coming from dark places. That’s why our characters need to be like us- rounded characters aren’t always good and that in itself is a good thing. Thank you for reading 😀

  2. That is really cool, Sacha! Looking through the eyes of the character and experiencing everything you want to write about! When I write on my books it happens the other way (no novels) then it happened the other way around. I was inspired and during the period I was writing on a chapter I got to experience everything I was writing about! That gave me many examples I could use for that chapter and which made me write it from a deeper point of view. Very cool… although arduous at times… lol!

    1. I think that probably happens to a lot of people – that experiences also influence stories and characters. I am actively seeking out experiences for that reason. But I suppose then its research, and your experiences were just life which ended up influencing your books. Either way, I find it fascinating to examine where these pieces of genius come from 😀

  3. This was brilliant (even if my brain is now screaming “But what’s my motivation, dahhhhhling?!”)

    Stephen King absolutely nailed lesson 2 in his Full Dark, No Stars collection. All four novellas are a “What would I do in that situation?” kind of thing. I highly recommend it for characterisation!

    1. Do you know, I have never read Stephen King. I ought to change that pronto. I tried to read the stand (I think its called that, the zombie apocalypse one,) but didn’t get far. Possibly because I was zombied out having just finished the Passage by Justin Cronin. I shall have to add this to my TBR pile!

  4. Hmm, certainly made me stop and think, Sacha. People who upset me? I brood, then I pretend they don’t exist and get on with my life. Trouble is when they come back in my eye line with something else. Then, the rage feels like it chokes me and I blow (I know I can be very sarcastic, unfortunately). It’s helped in the past to write a letter to them and burn it (not while they’re holding it, I might add – hah!)

    1. As if you put sarcasm and unfortunately in the same sentence.

      You are my hero! I ADORE sarcasm! I spend approximately 98% of my time in sarcastic mode!

      haha, I have done stuff like that before – write people letters and burn it. It really does help. So cathartic watching the words burn.

      1. Thanks Sacha. Sarcasm is soooooo satisfying. But I save it for my most caustic times (unfortunately those times seem to come around more as I get older hahaha). Really wish we could meet at the Bloggers’Bash – such fun!! jx

  5. The last time I felt anger was Saturday afternoon and I remember my sitting stance changed, my back got straighter and my knees went together. My eyes automatically narrowed and one long breath came out of my nose. I couldn`t do anything or say anything because the situation wouldn`t allow it but inside it felt like a great roaring in my whole body and if looks could kill, well……. lol that was fun describing that. Thanks for a great post Sacha.

  6. Whenever the pot of emotions stirs and boils within me, I get busy doing something that requires my full attention. For instance, I’ve been a wood worker for decades and working with woods means using a lot of very dangerous bladed tools like a 12 inch chop saw or a 10 inch table saw or a drill, or a router, etc.

    This weekend on Saturday my emotion pot started to simmer toward the boiling point and a few bubbles rose to the surface and roiled around. So on Sunday, out came all the blades and I spent most of the day engrossed in installing an aromatic cedar floor in the master bedroom closet.

    There’s nothing like having your face and fingers inches from blades and bits spinning thousands of times a minute to get your attention off of that simmering pot of emotions threatening your stability.

    That break from the simmering pot of emotions also allows time to think things through and figure out what you really want out of life for today and the near future, because if the emotions are allowed to take over, reason tends to go out the window in a panic nd vanish across the landscape out of sight.

    1. Hi Lloyd, sorry for such a lengthy delay – the bash totally got in the way of me keeping up. Sounds like you are super talented, I wish I was that skilled with my hands.

      1. You can learn. Wood working is like anything else. You have to start somewhere and if you keep at it over the years, you buy more tools, learn how to use them and get better at it. There’s a national chain in the US called Rockler and they offer free workshops in their stores to teach how to use tools and do projects like building a table, a bookshelf, etc.

        Here’s the About page for Rockler Woodworking and Hardware. I’ve been going to Rocker since I started woodworking in the 1970s.

        https://www.rockler.com/about-rockler/

  7. I get this exactly; it’s spot on Sacha. You need to get inside your characters which is why, I suppose they seem to get inside of you! It’s not method acting – your aren’t them – but you are imagining how they feel now the red hot poker is approaching the orifice of opportunity…

    1. lol you had me up to orifice! :p thanks though, it’s kind of a weird thing. Just like I get book hangovers when I finish reading a story the same thing happens when I edit/write because I end up feeling like I am living and breathing their world!

  8. I definitely don’t become my characters, they are separate entities inside my head, but I am privy to all their deepest thoughts and emotions and yes, motivation. Making a character 3D on a page isn’t easy though. Do we have to experience everything to be able to portray it in a story? Not everything, because human beings don’t always behave in the same way, or as expected, and that’s what makes an interesting character. But if the author has experience, it often shows, and makes it all the more convincing.

    1. Well I mean none of us can ‘physically’ become our characters. But I guess I do sort of slot into their minds when I write. I wonder if it’s because I write in the first person and you write in the third? It’s a fascinating thought.

      1. Hmmm… that IS interesting. Funny thing is, I don’t always write in 3rd, and I can’t explain why I wrote Conor Kelly in 3rd. Logically, I would say to anyone writing YA to always write in 1st. Odd. But interesting. But definitely odd. Lol!

  9. I always enjoy your demonstrations Sach. Your writing is always entertaining, no matter if it is information or not. Perhaps all these writerinspiration articles need to go in a book? Oh, oh, am I putting more on your plate now? LOL xo

    1. aww thank you <3 I really cannot tell you how much that means to me <3.

      haha you know I actually want to collate both the inspiration ones from weds, and also the Monday craft ones. The craft ones I am actually busy plotting an entire series of writing craft books. It's always the same problem though – time.

      1. I know, time, the one thing we all want more of. I spent 6 hours yesterday working on entering my rough draft of my sequel to my memoir into the computer while rewriting as I typed. 6 hours and I only got 2000 words done. I’m thinking it may be ready for edits by September at this rate, lol.
        And what a fantastic idea! Writing a book with your writing craft articles. Keep it to your true Sacha style and it will be a huge hit! I want a signed copy! <3

  10. This is excellent, Sacha. I cracked up when you said you plan to stop in the middle of the next argument and take notes. I was a theater major in college a long long time ago and was trained in the Stanislavski method. It was quite powerful and you hit a core point – that the distinction between “acting” a character and “being” a character applies as much to writing as it does to theater. Not only do we need to draw on emotional experience from our own lives, but we need to become the characters and have the courage to experience the emotional upheavals in extremely intense situations. Writing isn’t for the weak of heart. 🙂

    1. Haha, well it might work… Then again, art could get me a slap upside the head! pahahaha.

      It’s funny that a few of us writers used to be in theatrics.

      I agree – writing isn’t for the faint of heart. I really enjoyed reminiscing about Stanislavski, I actually used to act, when I was a teen I was even on the telly – as main character in a mini TV series.

  11. I did some acting as a student and we used these methods. I hadn’t a notion what I was at at 20, but some of it stuck. I remember saying I thought Nora from A Doll’s House would be a kitten if she were an animal (not expecting the next part) and of course I was sent up to play her role. As a kitten. I am still embarrassed!! Now I teach the play myself for literature but still feel the burn 😃

  12. Reblogged this on My Passion's Pen and commented:
    I’ve always believed writers should take advantage of acting workshops to better explore our characters, thus creating stronger stories. Following Stanislavski’s method is an excellent alternative.

  13. I certainly get what you are saying, but I also don’t (if you get what I mean?). If I’m angry or sad I have no desire to write. In fact, it’s one of the last things I’d want to do. I’ve tried it, and not only was it a load of rubbish, I hated every moment. However, I can totally see where you are coming from when you say to think of a sad moment so it brings tears, etc. Isn’t that how brilliant actors, who can turn on the waterworks at any given point, do it? In fact, I’ve done the same and can easily make myself cry just by thinking about a very sad situation.

    1. aloha Hugh, soz for delay, but…bash…life…. yes I think you’re right. When I used to act I would think of a sad situation and that would bring on the waterworks!

  14. Fascinating methodology I had read about before. I do sometimes think if the characters would do certain things or not, especially the characters I feel closer to, but as a psychiatrist I’ve seen people do incredible things sometimes… Thanks, Sacha.

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