curtain rises. Dark room.
Lonely atmosphere. Solo spotlight on desk.
Zoom in for close-up. We
see writer typing busily. Writer
jumps up from desk, smashes one fist into another, throws a chair,
shouts back and forth angrily in an exchange between two people, using
different voices and jumping from one side of the room to the other for
each voice. Runs back to
keyboard, writes what they said. Then
writer hides behind monitor, makes pistol out of finger and thumb.
scurries to other side of room, becomes frightened victim, is shot,
moans, yells for help, falls.
the writer's office, the kids run for cover, the cat squawks, and
neighbors dial 911.)
smiles happily, goes back to computer, types frantically.
Cut to close-up of page coming out of printer.
We read over writer's shoulder:
"Chapter One. It
was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
dramatic, this business of writing.
Doesn't it sound as if writers should receive Academy Awards for
yes. Let's put aside false
modesty. We should.
are remarkable similarities between the creative processes of writers
and actors. Think, for
example, of your favorite actors who have special talents in making
fictional characters appear real on stage or in films and television.
Your list may resemble mine and include such fine actors as Glenn
Close, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branaugh, Anthony Hopkins,
or others. Whichever actors
you respect, consider their performances.
Then ask yourself, "What techniques does that performer use
to make characters so vital, alive, and interesting?"
same techniques are—or should be—part of your writer's bag of
the point of this discussion: You
can improve your fiction writing if you adapt the actor's creative
step-by-step technique that brings characters to life.
goal here is to encourage you to become a writer-actor, whether you're
writing novels, short stories, poetry, plays, or television or movie
scripts. We'll examine some
significant acting approaches that will make your writing not only
easier but also better and, not incidentally, more fun.
you're a writer, it follows that you're an actor. Yes, really. After
all, while you're writing don't you mouth the words of your characters,
make faces as they talk, gesture with them?
Do you smile gently with their love, weep with their pain, laugh
with their joy? That's
becoming your characters, better known as acting.
see other writers do the same thing.
For example, I've watched a friend write. She's a one-woman show although totally unaware of her
activity. She squints her
eyes, rolls her head, and purses her lips as her characters think and
talk. She talks in many
voices and mugs wildly like Lamb Chop, that delightful Shari Lewis
puppet (and she'd hate me if she knew I thought that).
Characters she writes are full of life, spunk, and dimension.
Is there a cause-effect relationship, acting-to-writing?
She's convinced of it. I
think you'll also agree after you become involved in the process of
"the writer as actor" a new idea?
No. The concept
dates back to Aristotle, who wrote:
poet [he means all writers] should even act his story with the very
gestures of his personages. Given
the same natural qualifications, he who feels the emotions to be
described will be the most convincing; distress and anger, for
instance, are portrayed most truthfully by one who is feeling them at
them at the moment." That's
acting. And writing.
THE ACTOR'S TECHNIQUES
we think about "the writer as actor," we look at two
questions. First, how do
actors bring characters to life? Secondly,
how can you use actors' techniques to spark your writing?
To answer these questions we focus on how the writer can, as
Aristotle suggests, "assume the required mood" by adapting a
well-known actors' system.
Stanislavski System for Writers
modern actors create characters by using a logical step-by-step method
that Russian director and teacher Constantin Stanislavski developed at
the Moscow Art Theatre around the turn of last century.
In America that technique—often called "The
Method"—was popularized by The Actors Studio.
Remember Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire?
That performance is one of the powerful examples of the
method sparks imaginative creativity, insures credibility, and helps
develop dimensional, credible, and interesting characters, among its
major advantages for actors. And for writers. It's a
complex approach but we can summarize the important portions that will
help you write.
to understanding the Stanislavski method is awareness of the system's
goal: The actor must not act
the character but do all possible to be the character.
(Yes, that's a paradox, but theatre, like all art including
writing, is filled with them.) Acting the character leads to artificial,
"hammy" portrayals that lack honesty and sincerity.
Being the character, in contrast, gives truth and sincere
meaning because it gets to the soul, heart, and gut of the character.
For the writer, being the characters helps develop individuality
"be" the character the actor must submerge self, an investment
that requires elimination of personal physical and spiritual tensions to
permit relaxation into the character.
It means taking on the character's clothing, literally and
metaphorically. For the
actor, being the character requires actions; one thinks of what the
too, can learn to be their
characters through the Stanislavski system.
Think less about yourself and writing techniques (you can always
clean up your MS later with revisions) and focus more on the characters,
their emotions, hungers, needs and drives, history, likes and dislikes.
You start with asking questions to encourage your imagination to
delve into the characters. Stanislavski's
key to opening creativity is "what if."
teaches the actor to become the character by asking what he called
"magic if" questions that are answered by action based on
emotional response. For
example, the actress cast as Laura in The Glass Menagerie would
start becoming the daughter by asking, "What
if I am Laura, in her situation, listening to my mother
talk—again!—about her youth and all those gentlemen callers, what
will I do?" Another
good question: "What
if I'm Laura and my brother Tom is bringing home Jim?!
I know him from high school!
Oh!! What will I do? What will I wear? What
will I say to him? Will he
remember he called me 'Blue Roses'?"
the actress cast as Amanda in the same play would start the process of
becoming the mother by asking, "What
if I'm Amanda, with little money and a fearful premonition about my
own existence that makes me frightened for my reclusive daughter's
future, what will I do when I discover she hasn't been going to the
business school that was supposed to give her financial security for her
if" questions contain motivation and awareness of "the
now." The questions
are cast in the first person, in the present tense, and therefore they
pull you into the character's major concerns.
Very importantly, the questions suggest not one but two
attitudes: The character
toward herself and toward other characters.
can use the "magic if" questions when you write.
Become each of your characters in turn by asking similar
questions. Your writing
will be more effective if you can become all your characters.
Put yourself in their place.
example, assuming you are writing the above mother-daughter scene from The
Glass Menagerie, become Amanda to write her speeches.
Ask yourself what you-Amanda want to achieve—actors call this "the objective." What
will you do to reach that goal? For
actors, this is "the
Laura's reactions: "hear"
and "see" Laura speak or move.
How do they make you-Amanda feel?
What actions will you take in response?
Laura and ask yourself-as-Laura what is your objective?
How do you respond internally to Amanda?
back and forth may make you feel mildly schizophrenic but the resulting
richness of characterization is worth it.
A good place to start is an examination of the characters'
teaches actors to find motivation for everything they do, and don't do,
on stage. Equally, your
written characters are stronger with clear motivation.
There must be a reason for characters' actions and inactions,
speeches and silences, smiles and frowns, whispers and shouts.
like an actor, find the motivating force with answers to specific
does the character want?
There's an overall
arcing objective from the first page to the last.
that master objective are secondary sub-objectives that deal with
various moments. What
is she or she willing to do to get it?
does my character take this action at this time (instead of
yesterday or tomorrow)?
question of "What does the character want?" leads to major
answers concerning the whole work.
Stanislavski speaks of his own experience acting in Moliere's The
Imaginary Invalid. He was cast as Argan, the hypochondriac.
To examine his character, Stanislavski began by asking,
"What does the character want?" He found the answer: "I
wish to be sick." But,
he says, "The more effort I put into it and the more successful I
was, the more evident it became that we were turning a jolly, satisfying
comedy into a pathological tragedy.
We soon saw the error of our ways and changed to: 'I wish to be
thought sick.' Then the whole comic side came to the fore."
the actor, you want to give each character a motivating force that can
be satisfied by an action. That
gives your character forward movement.
Not incidentally, it also drives the plot.
you write you can use questions the actor asks, such as: "Why does my character take this action at this
time?" You, like the
actor, ask those questions for each scene or chapter.
If you can't find an answer, that's a red flag that the character
lacks action and you'll want to revise the scene to give him or her
significant action. If you
don't find action, perhaps the character is superfluous and might be
eliminated from the scene.
have two goals here. First,
you want to be sure every action is motivated.
Second, each action must be part of the character's larger
mission or, in the actor's terms, superobjective.
says an actor develops a dimensional human by looking for the
character's primary motivational force, called a superobjective,
which is a driving compulsion to achieve a particular concrete goal. That desire unifies every portion of the character's behavior
patterns because it is a through line of action starting at the story's
beginning (sometimes before the story begins) and continuing to the end.
The superobjective is expressed in active verbs to convey a
concept of doing, keeping character and plot in motion.
superobjective is a primary force and a spine that unifies all of the
character's actions. Motivational
drive results from this force.
the actor, that drive to achieve a goal keeps the character's actions
vibrant, logical, and plausible. It
makes the character full of dynamic evolution and change as he or she
struggles to overcome complications, reversals, and obstacles.
the writer, that compulsive drive makes characters equally dimensional
and interesting. You can add details and dimensions to your characters by
thinking of the character's superobjective as you write. For example, in a detective novel, the protagonist's goal
might be, "Regardless
of what sacrifices I must make, I must solve this crime because I'm a
professional cop but more because I'm particularly outraged by this
special crime." The
personal sacrifices and individualistic feelings of outrage will make a
unique protagonist, and the detective's driving compulsion will provide
the novel's plot.
excellent example of a powerful novel resulting from a protagonist's
strong superobjective is Ridley Pearson's Undercurrents.
It features a detective so obsessed with finding a serial killer
that he pays a fearsome price in terms of his physical and mental
health, marriage, friendships, relationships, and career.
The novel's plot is driven by the cop's striving to achieve a
goal as he encounters major obstacles and reversals.
using the superobjective when you write.
Just like an actor, you develop a dimensional character by asking
questions such as:
does my character want? Seek
a specific, not abstract, goal.
Romeo, for example, doesn't have a vaguely abstract goal
"to be happy." His
objective is concrete: "To
a complex of reasons—does my character absolutely have to
achieve that objective?
actions will he or she take to achieve that goal?
secret here, for actor or writer, is to be sure the character
desperately wants to achieve that specific objective.
Emotional investment is crucial.
The character must have something vitally important at stake that
causes a passionate desire to get what he or she wants.
Anything less won't work. A
mild, inactive, half-hearted wish isn't powerful enough to drive your
for example, how Glenn Close gives her character in Fatal Attraction a
burning, dogged determination to get her superobjective regardless of
the costs. That emotional connection with her goal makes her character
interesting, complex, and infinitely tricky.
Equally importantly for the sake of the movie's plot, if the
Close character didn't have that drive, the movie wouldn't have action.
don't know if master novelist Dick Francis consciously uses actor
techniques, but there's no denying the presence of the writer-as-actor
in his books such as Odds Against, Enquiry, or Whiphand. Certainly his written characters, like Close's acted
character, have clear superobjectives; each has a dogged determination
to achieve a goal despite all odds.
That fire makes the characters fascinating and admirable, and a
unique Francis touch makes them unable to think of themselves as worth
Close and Francis, you can use that compulsion to achieve a goal to make
your characters and plot crisp, alive, and forward moving. Start by making a list of each character's major goals, being
sure they come from the heart and gut.
objective (stated in active verbs).
to achieve that goal.
that propel him/her to want—to need—that
he/she will give up to obtain that goal.
isn't enough for a character to be on fire to achieve a goal; there also
must be major obstacles that prevent the character from getting that
goal. Actors learn that
they can show new aspects of their characters' personalities by the way
they react to physical and psychological obstacles.
Think of the variables. When
confronted with an obstacle, does the character whimper and quit?
Angrily bull through the problem?
Cleverly sidestep the obstacle?
Deviously enlist others to solve it?
Expertly lie to con the opponent?
Persistently grind it away?
For the writer, creating those reactions to obstacles will give
the character valuable dimensions.
a logical proposition here: no
obstacle means no reaction; no reaction results in no evolution in
character; no reaction or evolution equals a lifeless, dull, shallow
character. Equally, no
obstacle = no conflict. Yawn.
Without obstacles there are no struggles and, consequently, no material
to grasp the audience.
again of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Each time the Michael Douglas character refuses her is a
major obstacle. Close's artistic talents are shown as she responds to the
obstacle by becoming, in turn, cajoling, brave, angry, apparently
confused, grimly determined, deadly calm, and finally bloody murderous.
Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs is another example of
intense—and frightening—pursuit of an objective by cleverly
overcoming obstacles. Each
new facet is fascinating; for the audience, the character's changes are
intensely captivating. Furthermore,
obstacles make a lively,
can write the same dimensional, fascinating characters. Try answering questions the actor asks:
exterior obstacles stop my character from achieving the objective?
interior qualities prevent him or her from getting it?
does he or she react to each obstacle?
Jack Lemmon says he "loves obstacles" when developing
characters in his movies. "The frustration does two things,"
he says. "It creates a
higher level of energy and dramatic conflict within the scene, which
therefore makes it more interesting.
It gets empathy from the audience because they have frustrations
and they tend to identify and so to understand and to care because of
a writer, you can love obstacles, too.
Plan for your characters to hit obstacles.
The good writer—just like the good actor—hunts for both
interior and exterior obstacles. For
example, novelist Brian Freemantle gives his Charlie Muffin character
both types of obstacles. Charlie is a master, albeit somewhat bumbling, spy.
He battles notable exterior obstacles:
he has to win the spy game with devilish Russian opponents while
also fighting his own government, especially an accountant who is his
chief nemesis. His interior
obstacles are no less potent: he doesn't take care of himself.
Charlie is in horrible physical condition; most notable are his
poor, sore, battered feet, always in need of TLC.
The feet, by the way, give the novelist a fine running series of
connected titles for his Charlie Muffin books:
Blind Run, See Charlie Run, and The Run Around
because if there's anything Charlie's feet can't do, it is run.
actor and writer seek truthful depiction of characters, taking all
possible steps to be sure the character is honestly shown and that the
inner workings are correct. But
how is that possible, given the creation of characters far different
an actor or writer isn't required to have been a murderer or the
murderee in order to play or write one.
Actors learn to use a Stanislavski technique called
"emotional memory," also known as "affective
memory," which encourages the actor to recall a number of
situations from his or her personal life to capture the dramatic
emotional memory starts with faith that it is an effective process,
followed by belief in your own experience.
In my playwriting and acting classes I tell students: "By this point in your life you have experienced
virtually every human emotion. Perhaps
ahead of you will be occasions when you will feel that emotion more
deeply, but already you have personal and direct knowledge what it means
to feel love, hate, despair, ecstasy, success, failure, destructive
fear, and all other human emotions.
Believe in your experience.
Use it to develop richly dimensional characters."
actor or writer, to create a character's emotion you first re-create the
various times you've had a given emotion.
Taste it. How did
you feel? What actions did
that emotion lead you to do? Don't
be reluctant to use yourself. Actress
Kim Hunter points out, "What you use in acting is everything you
are as a human being," a concept that surely applies as well to the
writer. Everything you experience as a human helps you write,
just as experience helps the actor.
As Marlon Brando says, the actor "must interpret life, and
in order to do so he must be willing to accept all experiences that life
can offer." Poet
Robert Frost makes the point succinctly:
"No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader."
second step in using emotional memory requires you to see that the
characters are different from each other.
Examine various aspects of your own experience to invent
distinguishing characteristics for each character because you don't want
characters to appear like they all are the same.
third step of emotional memory is using your knowledge of others who've
experienced those emotions. Carefully
observe their actions when motivated by feelings. What did they do that expressed the emotion?
How did they handle themselves while that emotion controlled
them? Piece together your
own memories, plus your sensitive observations of others, and—fourth
step—use imagination to shape and add details for an artistic whole.
to real life people. Pay no
attention to how an actor or writer reproduces those vital feelings:
that's simply imitating an imitation which may itself be yet
another imitation. Walter
Matthau says of his creation of a detective, "Most actors play
detectives the way they've seen other actors play detectives.
I like to think I don't do that kind of imitation."
Role or Small
teaches actors that "there is no such thing as a small part, only
small actors." Actors
grumpily reply that's a romantic ideal, saying "Stanislavski never
played a walk-on spear-carrier without lines."
As an actor who has had those small roles, I agree! Nonetheless, a good actor in a small role will search out a
superobjective, even adding one if the playwright did not.
illustrate, suppose you're writing a totally utilitarian character, say,
a pizza-delivery person who has only one line:
"Did anyone here order a large pizza with anchovies?"
Not much there, is there? But
imagine Goldie Hawn plays that character.
Think about the way she'd handle that moment.
Ms. Hawn would probably find a superobjective or make up her own,
look for unique qualities in the character's clothing or accent, imbue
the character with a special eccentric attitude toward life, and perhaps
invent delightfully ditzy ways the character would handle money when
paid for the pizza and have to make change.
a writer-actor, try using Goldie Hawn's creativity as you write a minor
character in your story. Give
your character extra sparks of dimension and life by becoming Goldie as
the character. For example,
assume you-Goldie decide that the pizza-delivery person's superobjective
is to become a world-famous glamour model.
Delivering the pizza is merely a tactic, a ploy to achieve her
main goal. She fervently
believes one of her customers will recognize her attributes and hire
that superobjective in mind, ask questions.
What would she wear? How
would she walk, talk, smile? What
special mannerisms would she have?
What would be her attitudes toward others in the room?
How would she react to them when they stared at her blankly?
Or what would she do when one of the males responds amorously to
her? Through this creative
process the characters take on more dimension—not only the Goldie
character but also the others who respond to her—and instead of a
short, rather dull paragraph about someone delivering a pizza, you now
have opportunity to create several pages of interesting action.
The pizza delivery person can become a major character in your
story, far more colorful than a simple utilitarian player.
Life Beyond that on the Stage
know they should develop a character who has a life offstage as well as
when visible onstage. They
ask, "Where was I, and what was I doing and feeling, before I
entered the stage?" Your
written characters, too, benefit from that richer existence.
They have little depth if they exist only on the stage/page.
another Stanislavski technique, helps the actor imagine the offstage
activities. You can adapt
it to your writing. If your
character before entering had to travel to this house, imagine the trip.
In a car? A plane?
A taxi? What was the
weather? How about the
personality of the cab driver or flight attendant?
Was the trip hectic, eventful, or peaceful?
Did others on the plane or highway do anything unusual? Draw from your memory answers to questions such as these will
help you see your character better and may give you fodder for material
that will add to your story. The
ideal written character appears to have more reasons to exist than just
to satisfy the needs of the story.
Writers can use the actors' adaptation of psychologists Will
James and Fritz Lange concept of action creating emotion. The James-Lange theory says that action precedes emotion:
you are walking in the woods, see a huge grizzly bear, run away
like hell, and then become afraid.
The act of fear causes the emotion of fear; you don't run because
you are afraid—you become afraid because you're running.
Although this technique is not precisely what Stanislavski
taught, it can be directly helpful:
acting teachers says to their students, "Do the act, and the
feeling will follow."
applying the James-Lange theory to your characters. Write several experimental pages about your protagonist when
encountering major obstacles that sharply threaten his or her ability to
achieve her goal. Again,
become the character. First,
walk softly, even meekly into the room where the antagonists wait. When you see them staring at you, walk away.
Sit in a distant chair, smile shyly, dart little flickering looks
at them and then look away quickly.
"Listen" to how you speak quietly and hesitantly to
them. As an exercise, write
two to four pages in this manner.
still being the same character, stride boldly into the room.
Walk directly to one of your antagonists.
Stop in front of him, stare coolly in his eyes.
"Listen" to how you speak aggressively to him.
Now move confidently to the center of the room.
Stand there regally and look at the antagonists levelly,
challenging them to return your stare.
"Listen" to how you speak to them.
Write several pages in this manner, carefully ensuring that each
action is motivated by the character's drive to achieve her
your two exercises. Which
gives you a stronger protagonist?
don't tell." Notice
an important by-product of that James-Lange theory. You can show the character's personality, which is
more effective than telling the reader.
James-Lange Theory for Yourself
James-Lange concept also is extremely valuable to your own writing
techniques. If you do the acts of a
confident writer, you'll feel like a confident writer.
Or, the grim flip side, if you do the acts of avoidance,
you'll become an expert procrastinator.
But you've heard before the advice of countless writers:
"The only way to write is to write."
friend who mugs like Lamb Chop surprised me one day by putting on an old
silk top hat that she'd gotten at a thrift shop.
Sitting at the keyboard, she found that putting the hat on her
head at a rakish angle allowed her to give her male protagonist just the
right insolent attitude at a dinner party.
For her, the hat was what actors call "business."
It can be a piece of clothing like a beret or scarp, a specific
prop such as a silver cigar case, jewelry, the way a character walks or
takes a drink, or even the way the character folds a newspaper—some
precisely correct characteristic that enhances characterization.
What the characters use is important when it is as individual as
a DNA; the way they use it is significant character delineation.
Touch of Madness"
we quoted Aristotle about the writer as actor.
We can conclude this discussion by completing that
Aristotle, "Hence it is that poetry demands a man with a special
gift for it, or else one with a
touch of madness [emphasis mine] in him; the former can easily
assume the required mood, and the latter may be actually beside himself
isn't it?, this approval of "a touch of madness" from one as
exalted as Aristotle? Not
merely does he approve, he recommends.
The next time your parent, spouse, roommate, or neighbor
complains about your behavior—"Why must you writers always act so
crazy?"—smile smugly and tell them if it's good enough for
Aristotle, they certainly have no right to complain.
casting yourself in those interesting characters you're writing, and
start thinking about the speech you'll give when you receive your own
Academy Award for leading actor.
E. Catron is a prize-winning professor of theatre at the College of William and
Mary in Williamsburg, Va. Among his books are Playwriting: Writing,
Producing, and Selling Your Play (Waveland Press), The Elements of Playwriting
(Waveland Press), and The Power of One: The Solo Play for Actors,
Directors, and Playwrights (Heinemann).