I attended a fantastic writing retreat this past weekend and one of the sessions dealt with using acting techniques to improve your writing. It was fascinating. I learned so much from that session that I intend to put those ideas into practice straight away. Here is a condensed version of that talk given by Ginny Sain.
“Generality is the enemy of all art.” – Stanislavski
When creating your characters, you want to move from the general to the specific.
By paying attention to their inner lives and motivations of your characters in every scene. And this should be done FOR EVERY CHARACTER.
When an actor prepares for a new role, they get to know their character intimately – what motivates them, how they move about in space, what they like and don’t like – they slip into their character’s skin to portray them in a believable manner. The actor inhabits every inch of that character’s psyche. And they do this before they even step foot on the stage.
This can feel like a daunting task. Impossible even. So how do they do it?
They break down the play into moments – or beats – and figure out what’s driving their character’s behavior from moment to moment. Beats are manageable chunks even smaller than scenes. Some obvious beats include when a character enters or exits or when there’s a shift in conversation, or when new information has been revealed. Once the beats are identified, they then decide what the character’s objective, obstacle, and action is for each beat.
Objective – This is what your character wants. Each character has one main “superobjective” that spans the entire work and many smaller objectives that lead toward the “superobjective”. The path a character takes as they move through these smaller objectives is called the “through line”. Each character should have an objective for every beat they are on stage. The objective should be active and directed toward the other characters. Objectives seek to change things.
“I want get away from him and leave this room.”
Obstacle – What is keeping your character from getting what they want. These can be internal or external. Or both. This struggle is what makes the story interesting.
“I can’t leave because he locked the door.”
Action – What your character does to overcome his or her obstacle. There are usually three possible outcomes: the character will give up, overcome the obstacle, or plow through and ignore it. How they react shows what a character is made of, reveals a lot about that character.
“I jump out the window.”
This is a wonderful way of looking at your story. Focusing on what each character wants as you write each moment – which may be completely opposite things – can make for much more interesting writing.
Another great idea gleaned from this talk is to think about what is happening for each character immediately before a scene begins. Don’t write it into the story, but be aware of the head space of each character as you put them into the next situation. This gives momentum into the scene and adds inner life to the characters. A scene can also become more fleshed out when this is used.
Think about the physical sense of setting and how your character moves around in a scene or interacts with objects. Be thoughtful about how your characters move around in the world. Make their movements purposeful, not just because you need a beat in your dialogue.
A note on dialogue…
“Dialogue is the brush playwrights paint with.” – Ginny Sain
Consider looking at your dialogue as a spoken scene. Does this work as an acted scene? Listen for tempo, rhythm, clarity. If you can’t hear the musical rhythm of the character, revise!
If you struggle with dialogue, consider reading more plays to learn how to write better dialogue. It’s all show and no tell. you can find a great selection of plays at your local library or at the Dramatists Play Service website.
I hope this gives you another insightful way to develop your own characters.