Getting into Character

This is a writing book recommendation.

Sometime last year, around the time my husband and I visited Stratford, I started thinking about acting. Not about me acting! No, no, never. I took Drama in grade ten because someone told me it was smart to have an easy course to bring up my average. Ha.

I started thinking about actors and what they have to do. A script is, more or less, just dialogue. Often really good dialogue (okay, absolutely brilliant dialogue), but dialogue nonetheless. Actors move beyond this and add all those tiny details and textures that make a character come alive. From what a character says, they’re able to reach down inside and build a whole person.

It’s not always the same whole person, either. Mel Gibson’s Hamlet is different from David Tennant’s Hamlet is different from Ben Carlson’s Hamlet. But the words are still the ones we studied in high school.

Granted, I know very little about acting (see comment above re: grade ten Drama). I do know what it feels like to watch when a character comes alive, though. It’s that moment when I forget that I’m watching an actor and just start watching the character. The actor becomes invisible.

So since I’m working my way into a line of business where it’s a good thing if characters come alive, it occurred to me that I might learn a thing or two from actors. I even toyed (briefly) with the idea of taking a class, but, well… grade ten Drama. I still have nightmares.

I thought I’d try reading about it instead. In a used bookstore, I found a lovely, red hardcover called “Modern Acting: A Manual.” That sounded like just the thing. It was published in 1936, but the basics couldn’t have changed that much, could they? It’s a dense little book. My bookmark is in chapter four, but I know I waded ahead to other bits as well. I enjoyed the glimpses into an actor’s life (“The actor’s body is his medium of expression”), but this wasn’t a book that was going to change the way I wrote. It drove home the importance of observation, but didn’t give me any new ways to think about it.

Then I came across “Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors,” by Brandilyn Collins. This made me very happy because, you see, someone had done the hard work for me. I love it when that happens.

This was the book I wanted. She draws on Method Acting (which I had heard of only in the sense that Viggo Mortensen is apparently a method actor and insisted on carrying his sword around New Zealand for four years) and applies it directly to writing. She uses examples from books, everything from David Copperfield to modern thrillers. And she gave me a new way to think about observation. Several new ways, actually.

She talks about Personalizing, a way to avoid stereotypes and make characters memorable. The chapter on Inner Rhythm was an eye-opener for me, as was the one on Action Objectives. Of everything in the book, I think it’s the action objectives (a driving power behind every action, every scene) that I’m going to keep foremost in my mind when I’m editing down my current project.

I can’t claim to have internalized everything in the book yet, or to be doing it right. I wish! I do know that I drafted a new novel shortly after reading this book and I did it differently because of what I had read. Better? Worse? It’s a new draft. Hard to tell. But I certainly have a better handle on this main character then on some I have written, and for me that’s rare in a first draft. My “bad guy” insisted on becoming more complex than planned, as well. I like him much better for it, although I’m not sure that my editor will.

I read a lot of writing books. This one stands out for me. I feel a bit guilty, actually, because I’ve told my writing group about it but not offered to lend out my copy yet. I’m not ready to let it go.

And the best part? Now I don’t have to take that drama course I was considering.

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3 Responses to Getting into Character

  1. Erin, thanks for this review. I’m very glad to hear Getting Into Character was so helpful to you in your own writing. I appreciate your feedback.

    Blessings on your continued journey,

    ~ Brandilyn

    • Erin Thomas says:

      Thank you very much, Brandilyn! It really was one of the best books about writing that I’ve read lately, and I read a lot of them. You had a very new approach.
      Best wishes!

  2. Pingback: Eight Favourite Books on Writing | Erin Thomas

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