Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

"A TOUCH OF MADNESS"—  
THE WRITER AS ACTOR 1 

by

Louis E. Catron

© 2003, Louis E. Catron  

 "No one knows what will move his soul, and open

the treasure house of his creative gifts."

—Constantin Stanislavski,

My Life In Art.

 

he 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.  Shoots.  Writer scurries to other side of room, becomes frightened victim, is shot, moans, yells for help, falls. 

(Outside the writer's office, the kids run for cover, the cat squawks, and neighbors dial 911.) 

Writer 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."

 

 

Pretty dramatic, this business of writing.  Doesn't it sound as if writers should receive Academy Awards for their performances? 

Well, yes.  Let's put aside false modesty.  We should. 

There 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?" 

Those same techniques are—or should be—part of your writer's bag of tricks.

That's 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. 

Our 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. 

 

                Writing is Acting

 

Because 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. 

You'll 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 acting—becoming—your characters. 

Is "the writer as actor" a new idea?  No.  The concept dates back to Aristotle, who wrote: 

 

The 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 the moment.

 

"Feeling them at the moment."  That's acting.  And writing.

 

USING THE ACTOR'S TECHNIQUES

 

When 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. 

 

                The Stanislavski System for Writers

 

Most 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 Stanislavski approach. 

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.

 

                "Be," Don't "Act"

 

Crucial 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 and depth.

To "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 character does. 

Writers, 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."

 

                The "Magic If"

 

Stanislavski 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'?" 

Similarly, 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 future?" 

"Magic 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. 

You 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. 

For 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 tactics."  Watch Laura's reactions:  "hear" and "see" Laura speak or move.  How do they make you-Amanda feel?  What actions will you take in response? 

Become Laura and ask yourself-as-Laura what is your objective?  How do you respond internally to Amanda? 

Shifting 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' motivations.

 

                    Motivation

 

Stanislavski 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. 

You, like an actor, find the motivating force with answers to specific questions:

What does the character want?  There's an overall arcing objective from the first page to the last. 

Within that master objective are secondary sub-objectives that deal with various moments.  What are they?

What is she or she willing to do to get it?

Why does my character take this action at this time (instead of yesterday or tomorrow)? 

The 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."

Like 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.  

As 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.

You 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. 

 

                Superobjective

       

Stanislavski 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.

The superobjective is a primary force and a spine that unifies all of the character's actions.  Motivational drive results from this force. 

For 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. 

For 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. 

An 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. 

Try using the superobjective when you write.  Just like an actor, you develop a dimensional character by asking questions such as: 

What 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 marry Juliet." 

Why—usually a complex of reasons—does my character absolutely have to achieve that objective?

What actions will he or she take to achieve that goal?

The 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 character.   

Consider, 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. 

I 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 affection. 

Like 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. 

His/her objective (stated in active verbs).

Motivations to achieve that goal.

Emotions that propel him/her to want—to need—that goal.

What he/she will give up to obtain that goal.

 

Obstacles

 

It 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. 

There's 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. 

Think 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. 

Hannibal 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, compelling plot. 

You can write the same dimensional, fascinating characters.  Try answering questions the actor asks: 

 

What exterior obstacles stop my character from achieving the objective?

What interior qualities prevent him or her from getting it?

How does he or she react to each obstacle?

Actor 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 self-identification."

As 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. 

 

                Emotional Memory

 

Both 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 from ourselves?

Luckily, 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 character's emotions.

Using 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."

For 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."

The 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.

The 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. 

Go 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."

 

                    Large Role or Small

 

Stanislavski 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. 

To 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. 

As 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 her. 

With 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. 

 

                A Life Beyond that on the Stage

 

Actors 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. 

Sensory recall, 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. 

 

        The James-Lange Theory

 

"Flight-fright."  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." 

Try 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.

Now, 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 superobjective.

Compare your two exercises.  Which gives you a stronger protagonist?

"Show, 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.

 

                The James-Lange Theory for Yourself

 

The 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."

 

                Business

 

My 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.

 

                "A Touch of Madness"

 

Earlier we quoted Aristotle about the writer as actor.  We can conclude this discussion by completing that  passage.  Says 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 with emotion."

Comforting, 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. 

Enjoy 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.                       

 

Louis 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).


[1] In somewhat different form, “Writer as Actor” appeared in Writer's Digest magazine, December, 1989.  Used by permission.  Copyright © Louis E. Catron, 2003.  Catron’s personal webpage has many pages full of links valuable for writers and theatre workers:  http://faculty.wm.edu/lecatr/

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