Tag Archives: Character

Acting in the Theatre of the Mind

Sometime in the past year I changed my radio listening habits. I started tuning out the conservative talk radio I had grown up with (don’t judge me; or do: whatever) and amped up my consumption of NPR. Of course on NPR the tone of discussion is radically different, but on a basic level it’s not much of a switch. Talking is talking no matter which way you slice it up, and they do a lot of talking on NPR. They talk about politics, news, world-culture; and of course, they do interviews.

Sometimes they do interviews with people who actually matter, like politicians or financial experts or whatever. But sometimes they do interviews with other people; the kind of people that a lot of other people think matter, but they don’t really, except for the fact that so many people believe they matter kind of means that they do? That sentence: it got away from me.

I have a sliding scale for how well I tolerate these kinds of interviews. On the bottom of the scale is musicians. Call me crazy, but given the choice of hearing someone talk about music and listening to, you know, actual music, I’m gonna go with the latter.

Slightly higher on the scale, but not by much, are the writers. In theory I should be really interested in what other writers have to say. I mean, those be my people,  amiright? I don’t know, maybe they’re picking the most boring writers possible for these interviews, but I think it’s more likely that out of all the different professions out there, writers just tend not to be that interesting to talk to. Hellooo? That’s why we’re writers! If we could talk we wouldn’t be glued to our keyboards.

Then comes the third group. The group I should probably dislike the most, but somehow end up disliking the least. Actors. Actors tend to be way more interesting to me than writers or musicians. I’m not sure I can justify this. Probably it tickles the same bone in me that makes people buy supermarket celebrity news tabloids.

But there’s more than that too. Because when I listen to writers talk about how they write, most of the time I don’t get much out of it as a writer. They talk about why they chose a specific setting for their novels or what it is about one of their characters that appeals to them and it’s all very…safe.

More often than not though, I feel like I can learn something from actors talking about how they do what they do. The whole point of what an actor does is to create a character. Their job is to step out of who they are and into someone else in such a way that the audience believes in that person.

Now I know what you’re thinking, “Albert, the guy who wrote the script created that character. He’s the one who came up with the guy’s motivations, he’s the one who puts the words in his mouth. The actor is just following the writer’s instructions.”

And you’re wrong.

Yes, the writer does write the lines for the character, he does come up with his backstory, maybe he even has an idea of the character’s mental and spiritual state in the story. But no matter how good the writing is, it’s going to fall flat if someone doesn’t step into that role and become the thing the writer envisioned, mannerisms, ticks, facial expression, and a million other tiny things that the script writer might have never conceived of when he penned the story. The actor is more than just a puppet spouting the lines he’s been giving, going through the actions he’s been assigned. In a very real sense he must become the thing he is portraying as the film cameras roll.

At this point you might be thinking, “Yeah, but I’m writing a novel, not a screenplay you doofus. Why should I care about all this Hollywood mumbo jumbo?”

The reason you should care is this: if you want your story to be believable, if you want your work to make an impact, character matters. As a fiction writer you have more in common with the actor than you think. You’re not just writing dialogue. You’re writing actions and reactions, mannerisms and habits. You can’t rely on someone else to come along and realize the character in your reader’s minds. The whole burden of the process is on you.

The characters aren’t your puppets. Well, they can be. You’re the godlike writer, you can make them do whatever you want them to do. But if you want their story to be believable  if you want people to care about what happens to them, you’re going to have to do more than that.

You have to be able to step into their skin, understand what makes them who they are, and make sure that is reflected in every page that they’re on. This is more than just slapping on a backstory, a goal and a phobia. This is investing each of them with a soul of their own, making them into a living breathing person in your mind, and ultimately, in your moments of creation, becoming them.

Full disclosure? This is something I need improvement on. But sometimes I think I get it right. Sometimes I can feel what my characters are feeling, I can get inside their heads in such a way that their actions become my actions.

This is what writers mean when they talk about characters living inside their heads. We’re not schizophrenic; but maybe we are just a little bit crazy. Maybe we have to be.

Because in the end our insanity is infectious. The more we start to believe our characters are real, the more they start to live in and through us, the more the reader will believe that they’re real. Our characters will act out their story on the stage we’ve built in the theatre of the reader’s mind; and we can count ourselves successful if only for only a moment we can make our vision of the world feel more honest than the truth.

The Invisible Conflict

I’ve been writing fiction for about five years. I’d like to think I’ve learned a lot and matured considerably as a writer in that time. But while experience might be the best teacher, it certainly isn’t the most efficient one.

So at the beginning of this year I really started delving into some of the writing blogs on the internet looking for ways to make my fiction more powerful. I learned a lot about writing good dialogue, giving my protagonist goals, and a whole slew of other things.

But the one idea that has impacted me most as a writer in this last year can be summed up in one word: conflict.

Now I wouldn’t say that my writing never had any conflict before I started delving deeper into the mechanics of fiction. At some basic level I understood that things were supposed to go badly for the hero for most of the book, because fundamentally that’s what a story is.

But lately I’ve been looking for it, trying to inject it into every scene. So much so that it’s making me a little bit crazy. When my writing partner, Ellie Soderstrom called me to tell me that she’d finished the scene where our romantic leads finally met up after being separated for several weeks my only question was, “Yes, great, but is there CONFLICT!?”

[Yes, we’re writing a love story. But it has aliens and clockwork robots in it too, so that’s okay.]

But yesterday I was reading through some of the scenes Ellie had written over the last week, and there wasn’t any conflict in them at all. The main character’s goals weren’t being opposed. Personalities weren’t clashing. Things were actually going rather nicely for the protagonist.

And it was perfect.

Because there was conflict. But the conflict wasn’t in the scene. It was…invisible.

What do I mean by that? Well, most conflict you can see. It’s there and perfectly evident that two characters are fighting, or that the hero is facing some obstacle to his progress. As readers we can even “see” internal conflict going on in our protagonists heads.

But there’s another kind of conflict that doesn’t get a lot of press. And yet, when used properly, it can be the most powerful of them all. In spite of the fact that it appears nowhere on the page, you know exactly when it’s happening, because your heart starts to race, and you want to shout at the book in your hands, to try to change the course of the words.

I’m talking about the conflict between the reader and the story.

Alfred Hitchcock famously said that the most visceral kind of suspense was putting a bomb under a table and show the audience that it’s counting down, but don’t show any of the characters.

Think of it: two characters, sitting, having coffee, chatting about life in a completely friendly and nonconfrontational way. And in five seconds you know they’re about to be blown to bits.

Or a character falls deeply and madly in love. It seems like the man of her dreams. She’s finally ready to move on after the death of her true love. Things look wonderful for her. Life could not be better. But the audience knows her true love is still alive, fighting through the zombie hoards to get to her, and the man she’s falling for is pure evil.

Building that urge in your readers to shout out a warning to fictional people in a made up world is one of the most powerful things you can do as a writer. It shouldn’t be overdone, but when done right with characters that the audience cares about it can be one of the most memorable moments in a book.

Because it brings the reader into the story, gives them the responsibility of knowledge, makes them feel as if they could almost step in and change the course of the book. Or at the very least it gets them thinking, “If I was there, I would do something different.”

In other words, it is in those moments that the reader becomes a character in the story.

And it is in those moments that a story truly comes to life.