Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Writing and Acting go Hand in Hand

All throughout high school and college I studied theater. I worked behind the scenes, I acted on stage - there was very little I did not do over this extended period of time. I loved the theatre. I still do, even though life has prevented me from pursuing this pleasure at this time.

All my life, I also loved to write. I had a grandfather who was an author and he'd constantly encourage me to "write every day," among other sage words of advice. I am lucky I am at a place in my life I can write every day - even though I sometimes fall short of this advice.

Recently it's tumbled through my mind how alike both professions are in terms of character development. As a writer or as an actor, you have to dig deeper than whats on the printed page.

When I would land a role for a stage production, there would be weeks of practice in which I'd learn where to stand and how to move as well as memorize my lines. Beyond this, or in addition to this, I also had to spend a great deal of time figuring out my character. What was she like as a child? When did she lose her virginity? Did she fall and break her arm when she was eight because someone dared her to climb the tallest tree in the park? What events made her into the person she was at the time of the script? Now, all these events might never be mentioned in the script, but as an actor, I'd have to look between the lines and dig deep to "find" them in order to create a more believable and endearing character on stage.

As a writer, I have to employ the same tools to make my characters believable, come to life as it were. The final printed page may never tell the reader that "Bob" took a vacation to Washington at age twelve where he and his family ended up trapped during a snowstorm, but as a writer, I have to know this, and I have take this experience to shape the man he'll be in the story I present to you. We, as humans, do not suddenly come into being in one singular moment of time. At least, not usually. In order to create memorable characters, a writer can do no less.

Trust me, I've tried the here and now approach to writing characters. I've been there where the only depth to the character is whatever words come out of his or her mouth in the manuscript. The attempt at writing this way came from wanting to shortcut, wanting to be "simple," and to focus on the plot. Did this ever work for me? Hell no. I'd end up with boring, unmotivated people that simply existed page to page.

Do all writers do extensive backgrounds on their characters such as I'm describing? No. But the authors who have memorable characters do, to some extent. The characters you create, you develop, you write, are entities unto themselves, just as a character is to an actor onstage. And without some background, you might as well put dotted lines around your people and publish a paper doll book.

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