Saturday, September 4, 2010

Writer Alert: Excerpt from Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins

The Russian actor and director Constantin Stan...Image via Wikipedia


© Copyright 2003 by Brandilyn Collins.
Used by Permission of Brandilyn Collins.

[The artist’s] job is not to present merely the external life of his character. He must fit his own human qualities to the life of this other person, and pour into it all of his own soul. The fundamental aim of our art is the creation of this inner life of a human spirit, and  its expression in an artistic form.

~ Constantin Stanislavsky, in An Actor Prepares

Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From ActorsThe “secrets” or characterization techniques discussed in this book can open a whole new world of thinking for you as a novelist. These techniques have been adapted for your use from “The System” or “Method” of acting attributed to the great Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938). Today, the term “method acting,” which refers to the use of his techniques, has become part of our general vocabulary, although many have a distorted idea of what “method acting” really means.

Stanislavsky never claimed to have invented the techniques used in his Method. Rather, he sought to bring together acting concepts honed over the centuries and present them in a logical way. He wanted a clear break from the 19th century representational style of acting, which was geared toward mere outward effect. Instead Stanislavsky aimed for the presentational style, which was based on conveying psychological truth. He believed actors should develop an intimate knowledge of the characters they played so that they took on the characters’ inner lives. Actors could achieve this only through discovering the characters’ emotions and motivations. Without such intimate knowledge, Stanislavsky believed, acting would be merely movements and spoken lines -- certainly not the embodiment of the life of the character. His worst criticism of an actor’s portrayal was to say, “I don’t believe you.”

That same criticism from a reader – “I don’t believe you” – is just as harsh for us novelists. As a result, Stanislavsky has much to teach writers of fiction. After all, we deal with the same issues as the actors of his day. We, too, seek to create full-fledged characters with a deep sense of human truth, rather than cardboard representations.

Stanislavsky’s “ABC” books on The Method (An Actor Prepares, Building A Character and Creating A Role) are considered classics in the art of drama and are still available today. They provide very informative background reading for anyone interested in writing fiction. Getting Into Character focuses on seven of the most sweeping and eye-opening techniques Stanislavsky covers in these books, presenting them in terms that can radically change the way you approach your characters and their relationship to your story. These secrets are equally helpful to the “plot-driven” as well as the “character-driven” novelist.

Whether you start with a story or a character, let’s face it, we writers of fiction are alike in one way. We’re a mighty strange breed. We view the world differently. We walk around with voices and shadowy figures in our heads. We tend to stare out windows, mumble to ourselves. The Normals can’t begin to understand us. Only our first cousins – the actors – can come close to matching our eccentricities. For again, we share the same goal – bringing characters to life . . . .

We have much to learn from our cousins. For while we are often tempted to overuse words, all actors have is action. An actress can’t turn to the audience in the middle of a play and explain her character’s guilt complex. She must show it. All of us writers have heard over and over again, “Show, don’t tell.” Yet we’ve all read novels whose scenes are full of telling: the motivations are told, the emotions are told, even the action is told. No wonder we zip through the story unmoved, our souls unshaken.

Good fiction can be defined with “Five Cs” -- convincing characters caught in compelling conflict. As we look at seven secrets our cousins employ to create convincing characters, we’ll not delve into deep study of these techniques from an actor’s point of view. Indeed, our cousins may smile at our layman’s approach to their skills. But we are focusing on our art, not theirs. Like thieves in the night, we’ll snatch what nuggets of knowledge we can and flee to our own dens to hunker and grin over their use.

Ever struggled with these kinds of issues in your writing? If so, you’ll find something in this book to treasure:

My story is about three girls, but they all seem the same. See Secret #1

I struggle with writing about something I haven’t experienced. See Secret #7

Sometimes my dialogue seems forced and shallow. See Secret #3

Readers can’t always connect with my characters’ emotions. See Secret #5

My hero isn’t three-dimensional. He’s too much of one thing. See Secret #4

Some of my scenes are boring. See Secret #2

My descriptions are long but still seem ineffective. See Secret #6

My characters’ motivations aren’t always clear. See Secret #2

I don’t know how to use dialogue to further the conflict. See Secret #3

My characters repeat the same gestures from book to book. See Secret #1

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