Characterisation 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.
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!
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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