A discussion over at Storytellers Unplugged sprang up after Brian Hodge’s last post about characters and characterization. I don’t want to rehash what has already been said, but some other things caught my eye and ear in a short period of time, and as often happens, they formed themselves into the germ of an idea for a blog post.
No one who goes to movies can have missed the great method actor characterizations of the past few years. Johnny Depp comes to mind - and Heath Ledger with his incredible portrayal of The Joker. What these guys do is akin to magic, and it’s based on “method acting,” which is a process by which the actor immerses themselves in a sort of “real world” version of the life and mind of the character they want to portray. You can act without using this method, of course, but for me the most memorable - the most incredible characters, have all been portrayed by method actors. As an instance that should illustrate it: Jack Nicholson as The Joker was wonderful - but it was more of a “If Jack was the Joker, this is how the Joker would be” kind of part. Jack plays that part a lot in various films…he plays himself a lot.
Heath Ledger did not play Heath Ledger in the movie. He became that other person, that twisted, mentally deficient killer with the odd twisted smile. He became someone else for periods of time, and when that other person walked onto the screen, that was all you saw. Not - hey, there’s Heath, this is what it would be like in Batman’s world if HE was The Joker” - you got what our world would be like if the Joker really came to life. It’s a whole different ballgame.
In writing, we create a plethora of characters, and we plumb them to a variety of depths. Obviously, the “method acting” thing is not going to be a great choice if you are writing about serial killer, though - to a point - you have to do it. The less you are able to empathize in one manner or another with your character, the more cookie-cutter and unrealistic that character will play out. You have to not only imagine the character in a situation, but to make him or her real, you have to be able to drop into their mind, thought patterns, experience, etc…and then, in words, you react as they would react. Anything short of that will provide a character that can exist and move the plot along, but that will be forgotten the moment the pages of the book are closed.
There is some legitimate concern behind the question “how do you write that stuff,” if someone writes “that stuff” very well. People want to know how you can do it. How you can write from the point of view of a killer, or a very psychologically damaged character of one sort or another and bring that character to life.
When I wrote my novella ENNUI - I actually bought a prop. The artist Walter Sickert, who may or may not have been - or known - Jack the Ripper - used to paint late at night by only the light of a small hurricane lantern. The officers who chased Jack through the London fog wore belt-sized models of this same lantern, and it was their only illumination. To write scenes like that takes perspective. I found it buy purchasing an antique lantern on eBay. The one I got is the belt-worn model used by London Bobbies in the 1800s. It came from London, and may well have been on the streets at the same time that Jack was…no way to know. I never figured out how to light it, but seeing it - the size - figuring out what a flame similar would look like by shining a candle inside, instead of filling it with oil and lighting it - carrying that light into heavy fog one morning - all of that was my version of method acting.
It’s damn near impossible to paint in that light, in case you wonder - unless you have an uncanny talent to begin with. I don’t, but I could imagine what it might be like if I did. I also would have been unable to so much tracking through the streets of London if the fog was thick. The lamps are feeble things…flickering and dancing in darkness…dead and limp in fog.
When I write, it sometimes takes three or four times for the family to pull me back to the real world to realize they are talking to me…and very often - even then - my mind is drifting down some road that doesn’t exist. I drop into the minds of characters when I’m out running - it helps me think things through, have conversations with people that never existed and try to see how and why they answer.
It’s important. Not all fiction is character driven, but if yours is - or you want it to be - you have to be willing to open yourself to thoughts and actions and reactions that are alien to your nature. You have to be willing to meet all the characters halfway and - if you can’t understand their motivation on a personal level, you have to be able to recognize that motivation and allow them to react to it uninhibited by the confines of your own thoughts, ethics, and morality. It’s not easy. If it was, everyone would do it…
It brought us Hannibal Lector and Forrest Gump. It brought us thousands of Dickens characters, and Roland the Gunslinger. Characters that exist beyond the pages of the book, that breathe and speak and walk down the roads of your mind long after you’ve finished reading about them, and that leave you with that lingering sensation that when the novel ends - or the story stops - the characters live on.
For me - that’s the way it has to be.
I guess I’m somewhat of a method writer…
Me and Johnny Depp. I can live with that.
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