Sunday, April 23, 2006

Getting to Know You (Actually not You, but...well...just read on)

One of the most valuable writing classes I took in college wasn’t a writing class at all. It was Acting 101. The fact that I took an acting class isn’t as big of a stretch as you might think. I’d actually done a bit of acting in high school. But just to be clear, I was under no delusion that I would be pursuing acting as a career…I was a little too realistic (not to mention introverted) for that. I was merely filing out my electives with something I thought would be fun.

Okay, back to the class. I had this great teacher. For the life of me, I can’t remember her name. Don’t give me a hard time! It was…eh…a few…okay…several years ago. (Let’s just call her Ms. Brando.) She was really good at pulling out the best performances possible from everyone in the class. I enjoyed that a lot. But that’s not what made this the best writing class I had.

Each week, Ms. Brando would assign us a scene to do. Sometimes it was with someone else, sometimes it was a monologue. But part of what she had us do to get into the character was write an essay about the part we were playing.

I think most people did your basic character sketches. You know what I mean. Age. Physical characteristics. A few highlights of their life…but probably only those facts that were revealed in the play itself.

I guess because I considered myself more a writer than an actor, I really dug into the essays. I would write stories, usually in first person as the character, telling about “my” life or concentrating on a specific episode.

I do remember one specific paper I wrote. I’d been assigned to play the part of George Gibbs from Thorton Wilder’s Our Town.If any of you know the play, you’ll remember that George was the main character who goes from being a teenager in love in the first act to being a late twenty something widower when his high-school sweetheart dies in childbirth.

Instead of writing my essay in first person, I decided to treat this one as a newspaper interview. I (Brett) was a reporter and I met up with George in a local coffee shop several years after the timeline of the play was over. I asked him questions, and he answered as best he could, dodging some answers and struggling with others. I didn’t put words into his mouth. I wrote them down exactly as he said them to me in my mind.

Ms. Brando loved the paper. I think she was probably just happy not to get another “George had a hard life…” type submission. In the end it doesn’t really matter what she thought. (But if you’re wondering, I did get an A.) What does matter is all the papers I wrote for that class (and specifically the one about George Gibbs) were a revelation to me. They did exactly what Ms. Brando had intended. They helped me to get to know a character. Of course she was thinking in the acting sense. To me it was all about how it related to writing.

I knew the method would help me get to know characters I created in my stories. And what that interview showed me was that I could actually talk directly to my characters. I could ask them questions I didn’t know the answers to, and you know what? They’d answer me.

Some of you might have read my post from Friday night – it follows this one, so just keep scrolling down if you haven’t. It’s kind of an example of what I’m talking about. Not 100%, but you’ll get the idea. In this case, that particular post was not something I wrote long ago to help me with my novel. I wrote it Friday night because I wanted to find some way to introduce people to the protagonist of my novel, and it felt like a good way to do it.

I guess all I’m saying is that if you’re a writer, don’t be afraid to talk to your characters. They like to talk, though you might have to work a bit to get them to fully open up.

But you’re a writer. This kind of work’s okay.


JT Ellison said...

Amen to that. I know that character development is both a headache and a joy for me. Some characters jump out of my mind ont the page, other have to be coaxed, slowly and painfully. The inerview in one of the best techniques out there.
Love to hear more about your tricks, Brett.

J.B. Thompson said...

J.T., I think Brett may actually be our long-lost triplet brother. Have you noticed how much he thinks and sounds like us?!?

Brett, I did a similar "getting to know you" exercise with my characters, where I had them fill out personality questionnaires on each other. Putting yourself inside a character's head, whether talking to them directly or talking to them about the other characters in the story, is an excellent way to get to know them so that you can, in turn, introduce them to your readers. Glad to see I'm not the only one out there who carries on full-blown conversations with imaginary people. Or maybe that's another issue ...

Brett Battles said...

Stranger things have been true.

J. Brett