*This is the first of a long series that I’ll be working on over the next few months.
I am a theatre nerd.
I mean, just the fact that I insist on spelling it with an “re” should tell you that. My undergrad degree is in theatre, where I focused first on acting, then on directing. I’ve directed and produced shows in LA, and had my own theatre company, as well as stage managed and assistant directed in various places. I know Les Mis, Rent, and Hamilton by heart. Well, I get tripped up on some of the rapping in Hamilton, but whatever. I want to cry when I hear The Decembrists’ I Was Meant For The Stage. I nearly died when I got to take a picture with a statue of Bertolt Brecht outside the Berliner Ensemble. I am obsessed with Jacques Le Coque and if you even know who that is, we are kindred spirits.
Yes, I am that much of a dork.
I walked away from working in the theatre seven years ago, deciding for both financial—and, I’ll admit it, mental health—reasons to be a different kind of storyteller. I haven’t looked back, though I do get a little wistful whenever I step into a tiny black box theatre that smells like paint and dust and magic. And, okay, I might have to write a play one of these days. (Oh, shit, I’m going to go back, aren’t I???).
A Writer Prepares
For a long time I’ve been wanting to write about the lessons novelists can learn from the Stanislavsky System, also known as the Method. HUGE DISCLAIMER: I vehemently disagree with modern-day applications of the Method in acting and, while I’d love to really get into why I find it to be problematic at best and abusive at worst, I suspect only some of you would appreciate me standing on that soapbox. Let’s just say I’m a Viewpoints / Meyerhold / Le Coque girl, for any of you who are dying of curiosity (so, like, three of you). That being said, I love so much of what Stanislavsky says and I recognize that when the Method spread to the US, a lot of it was warped and taken to extreme levels. I can’t think of any better resource than Stanislavsky when it comes to building a character. Diving into his original work will serve you best.
For these reasons, the Method is an excellent tool for writers who need to get into the heart of their characters and are struggling to do so. The Method can help you really embody your character and use your imagination to build her from the ground up as a fully real and complex human being and to dig into your own emotions and life experiences to “be” your character as you write her. One of my mentors uses the phrase “getting into the skin” of a character—she doesn’t mean this in the Method sense, but it can be taken that way. You aren’t writing outside your character, watching her and reporting. You are the one running for your life, killing the villain, finding that magic ring. This is the territory we’ll be exploring in this post.
Quick history lesson: the Method evolved out of the writings and teachings of a Russian actor and director named Konstantin Stanislavsky, who established the Moscow Art Theatre. There are several books he’s written still in print, Building A Character and An Actor Prepares perhaps his most widely read books. He was trying to create more realistic theatre, less melodrama and more kitchen drama in terms of how his actors approached their roles. Meaning, he wanted the actors to feel the emotions their characters were experiencing, so as to truly bring them to life, rather than use the broad techniques that were common at the time (he was working in the latter-half of the nineteenth century). His hope was that not only would this help actors create a character, but it would allow their performances to be fresh every night onstage. A great tutorial in this would be to watch Shakespeare in Love, which hilariously demonstrates actors who tried to “look” frightened by imitating what they thought a person who was afraid would look like, but who were not connecting to any real emotion (as in, recalling a time when they themselves were afraid and working with that emotional memory while they’re onstage in a scene). Contrast the broad performances of the characters who play actors in Shakespeare’s day at the Globe with Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance in the movie as Romeo and you’ll see the difference between what acting was and what Stanislavsky believed it could be.
The System relies on your personal emotional topography and your imagination, as well as a commitment to deep work on building your character. This is where you might think of the phrase “what’s her motivation?” Your character kisses that stranger in the street—why does she do it? If you were a Method actor, you would dig into her past in order to bring that to the performance: is she kissing random men because her father never gave her the love she needed? Is it because she feels that in order to be seen she has to give pieces of herself away? Etc. There is a real fusion here between acting theory and psychology, but that’s a whole other can of worms that you can have fun picking through if you wish. Stanislavsky’s goal was to create true, believable characters, not archetypes, and he built a System in which actors could do just that. His actors would do intense rehearsal (unheard of at the time, when actors just stepped into roles with little prep), “homework” on their characters, and going through the emotional beats of each scene. What is she—what are YOU, the actor, who is her—feeling now? And now? And what about now?
Another way to look at this: it’s the difference between saying, “My character wants to kiss him” and “I want to kiss him.” I because you have fully embodied this character so that you are now her. Of course, you aren’t really abandoning yourself—in the Method you must simultaneously be intimately yourself in order to be this character, drawing on your own emotional reservoir so that the two can co-exist. You are, in effect, your character’s host. You disappear.
When his ideas were brought to the US, where the Method is the predominant form of actor training, people began to take this to extremes. You hear stories about actors who “are” their characters for all of the filming or stage run, even when the cameras aren’t rolling: the rumors about Heath Ledger and how his approach to building the character of the Joker in The Dark Knight led to depression and increased drug use (he died of an accidental overdose after the film wrapped). Jack Nicholson’s abuse of fellow actors while filming One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Marilyn Monroe was a Method actor, the work a danger to her already fragile psychological state (My Week With Marilyn illustrates her Method work very well, with Michelle Williams, another Method actor, in the title role—there’s a great interview with her and Charlie Rose about her process that you should check out, if you get the chance). Daniel Day-Lewis has been known to not break character for the entire filming process, including when he’s not on camera and supposedly learned Czech or didn’t bathe for three months for other roles. Method actors can often not help blurring the lines between their work and their reality and this is often to their peril. I’m by no means an expert in all manifestations of the Method, but—fun homework—if you have actor friends, talk to them about their process as they build a character.
This is going to be a series of blog posts over the next few months, so I’m just going to focus on the first of Stanislavsky’s strategies in the Method and show you how you can use it for your writing. To get a quick overview of the Method, you can go here.
Emotional Recall (aka Emotion Memory / Affective Memory )
In this strategy, an actor would recall a time in their past where they felt the way their character is feeling in a given scene in order to have an authentic emotional experience. So, for example, my character is crying and deeply upset over the fact that her boyfriend has killed himself. In order to feel this way, I would need to come up with a time where I felt similarly, since I never had a boyfriend who killed himself. Method training would say that in order to portray this character authentically, I’d need to go there emotionally as an actor. So, in order to produce a great performance of a young women in the throes of grief, I relive the trauma of my grandfather’s death—a time where I felt as devastated as I imagine my character to be. On stage. Every night. (Perhaps you can see why I find this to be an unhealthy form of acting training).
What this is intended to produce is an emotionally true and visceral experience that will communicate effectively to the audience, as well as the other actors in the scene. It’s Natalie Portman embodying the Black Swan in Black Swan (a cautionary tale on Method performance if ever there was one). Because my emotion over my Papa’s death is real, it will also be felt as real to the audience and cast because they are witnessing a real person experiencing real grief as though it has happened for the first time. You can imagine the imagination and psychological work that needs to be done to get an actor to this state. Cue my acting class PTSD. I don’t think this is healthy and I would argue that you can use sensory and muscle memory to get there just as effectively, but, then again, I’m not a successful actor or director, so take my two cents with a grain of salt. I will say this: when it’s done right (as in, by an actor who can control their emotion so that it doesn’t run off the rails), it is indeed a powerful thing to behold. Many actors would say this effect is worth the price of admission. For writers, it’s much safer because you would only be diving deep into your pain when you’re writing and revising the scene, not going there every single day for the entire rehearsal process and run of a show—sometimes twice a day, if there’s a matinee!
So. How do you do this as a writer? And how do you know it’s even necessary to go there?
If you’re getting feedback (from others or yourself) that a scene isn’t working or that your character is narrating instead of living her story, you might need to use a little emotional recall. Let’s pretend you’re writing The Hunger Games. You’re writing Katniss and you’ve never lived in a post-apocalyptic America, never had a situation where you had to make the ultimate sacrifice for a sibling (volunteering as tribute in the Hunger Games). So how do you get Katniss’s alchemy of rage, pain, hunger, determination, love, and protectiveness on the page?
The Non-Method Way
Emotional Recall is an extreme move, so it’s important that you first try to do things the old-fashioned storyteller way: embodying your character by being with her step by step.
What this looks like:
You keep checking the emotional beats of the story to make sure she’s showing up sentence by sentence. Is it just choreography on the page, with your character moving methodically through the scene’s action and dialogue, or is it rich with internal turmoil that’s expressed through metaphors and action that is precise and particular to her and her world? Is your character running the show, or are you, the writer, sneaking into the pages by enforcing the plot, imposing it on her rather than letting her act and react organically as the story unfolds?
If you’re struggling to get into the skin of your character, try these exercises:
Do side-writing (writing that might not end up in the book, but that you need to better understand your characters and story) to get more of her backstory in your bones. Maybe you would write the scene where Katniss’s father dies, or the moment Katniss decides that she will be the one to hunt for and take care of her family. By the time we meet Katniss, she’s already a badass who has providing for her family on lockdown. How did she get that way? Perhaps Suzanne Collins did this side writing that we never see—but we feel it, don’t we? Katniss is a fully realized character who is wholly a product of the miserable world she lives in and the circumstances of her life. She didn’t just pop onto the page that way. I’d wager Collins had to sweat a little to birth such a headstrong character who is so very good at hiding her soft spots. Other side writing options are journaling as your character or write in verse.
Other ways to get into your character’s skin include building playlists that help bring her to life for you, watching movies with characters that are different manifestations of her, collaging or doing some other art form, and taking long rambling walks with a trusty notebook in your pocket. I think music is especially powerful because it allows you to mainline whatever mental state you need to access. Get yourself out of the way and let the feeling guide you.
Sometimes, that doesn’t work. Sometimes a character is a nut that’s just too hard to crack. And so we go to our dear Stanislavsky in our time of need.
Being a Method Writer: Emotional Recall For Novelists
My caveat: please don’t do this emotional recall with something that you haven’t already worked through. You don’t need to suffer for your art, and it’s simply not healthy. It could also result in shitty writing, if you depend on it too much. Going down your own personal rabbit hole instead of your character’s may result in overwrought prose or cause you to lose sight of your character because now you’re so caught up in your own shit that you’ve begun projecting things onto her that don’t jive with who she is.
Let’s go back to our Hunger Games example. Let’s say you need to write the scene where Katniss volunteers as tribute. Intellectually, you know she loves her sister and will do anything to protect her. But let’s say you can’t seem to “feel” the scene. It’s not hitting the emotional target. So you push away from the computer, close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. Center yourself, as though you’re Jennifer Lawrence, about to walk in the Hunger Games set. When you feel grounded, clear of the whirlwind of thoughts in your head, think back to a time when you have been so desperately scared for someone else, that you would have done anything to protect them. If you have something like this, great. If not, then just think of a time in your life when the stakes were super high and the outcome hinged on a decision you had to make.
We call this “substitution.” You substitute the character’s situation for one of your own, but one close enough that it will produce the same result. Now—and this is the messy part—relive that situation. Recall the nuances of your emotions, recreate it in your mind so that your muscle memory and recollection fuse until you are in roughly the same state you were when the event you’ve chosen to bring up from your past actually happened. Now, turn to your computer and write.
It’s really important that after you finish your writing session that you take some time to release yourself from that memory and emotion. Do a few minutes of calming breath and a bit of self-care. As you’ll see, this isn’t for everyone and it’s certainly not something to turn to all the time. This is what you do when all else fails. And it won’t work for everyone. I am much more effective using muscle memory for basic states (anger, fear, sadness, joy) in the tradition of Théâtre du Soleil and my work with the Actor’s Gang theatre company in Los Angeles, as well as my work in Viewpoints and kinesthetic awareness to create a state of hyper sensitivity (thereby increasing my capacity of empathy) than Method work. Or I use music to launch me into those states and allow the nuances of, say, fear, to arise as I write.
I suggest that if you are going to use emotional recall, that you use it on really pivotal scenes: your character’s origin scene, a major turning point, the climax rather than every little scene that comes along. Go deep, and go there when it counts the most. This should then open you up and allow you to get where you want to go more organically in the less intense scenes.
If you try out some Method writing, let me know how it goes! In the comments, share what works for you to get into the skin of your character. What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to get authentic emotional beats on the page?
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