Want to write better characters?
When it comes to creating characters, one area that I think every writer can benefits from are the tools of theater. Playwriting and acting have a lot to teach about characters and character development. I’ll have a more indepth guide to playwriting for you in the future, but today I want to dig into how an actor’s mindset can help you write better characters.
While there are quite a few different methods of acting, there is generally an emphasis on knowing a character deeply and intimately to effectively embody them. There are a variety of exercises that actors might do to get into their characters heads. In an upper level acting class I once took one of our assignments was to handwrite a journal entry from the perspective of our character. We weren’t just writing in their voice, we were encouraged to think about what their handwriting would look like and how they might write things down on the page. Would they scribble in the margins? Were the spaces between their words big or small? There were so many layers to consider in what can sound like such a simple exercise. This experience doesn’t tangibly translate into performance- no one in an audience would be able to look at you and tell- and yet it deepens your connection to a character in a way that is hard to discount.
Similarly, directors sometimes have actors improvise scenes that don’t directly have anything to do with the action of the play, but develop the emotional reality of the character. If a play deals with the themes of a relationship, you might improvise the first date between two characters even though you’ll never see it on stage. Sometimes directors will have actors improvise scenes that seem wildly unrelated or totally outlandish. What if your character was at a state fair? Or how about if your character was an animal? What if they couldn’t speak? Ultimately all these exercises are trying to get at who a character is even when they’re not concerned with the business of being a character in their particular play.
What would your character do in an unusual situation?
A theater teacher once told me the story of how she ended up chewing a piece of gum that had fallen on the stage floor.
She was playing an obnoxious student that loudly chewed gum throughout the performance. One night on stage her gum fell out of her mouth and onto the floor. It might not seem like a big issue, but this was entirely unexpected. She and the director hadn’t talked about what happens if she loses her gum. How was she supposed to react? Should she ignore it? In that split second, she asked herself what the character would do if gum fell out of her mouth. The answer, for her, was to pick it up and keep chewing.
That tells you a little something about her as an actor (not everyone would be willing to do that), but it also tells you about her character. Not every gum enthusiast would pop gum that had been on the floor back in their mouth. Probably most wouldn’t. But this one would, and that is a testament to how well she knew she character and how committed she was to the knowledge.
In writing, you may not have a live audience watching your characters, but you do still have to deal with the unexpected. Sometimes plot goes places you didn’t anticipate or a character has something to say that you weren’t planning for. Sometimes your carefully laid plot isn’t working at all, and you have to ask yourself if this is really how things should go. Knowing your characters deeply will help keep you agile and ready to work with every twist and turn your story takes.
How do you think like an actor?
I mentioned earlier that directors will have actors improv scenes that aren’t directly related to the plot of the play— you can do this with your characters too. Do some writing that puts your characters in a scene they might not otherwise be in. Maybe they take a camping trip or spend an afternoon cooking. The scene doesn’t need to be a huge departure, no one needs to travel through time or change genders (unless you want them to), just take them a step outside of the confines of your story.
Here are a few scenarios you could play with:
- A character loses their house keys
- Two characters go grocery shopping together
- A character goes to a bookstore
- Characters have to decide what movie or play to watch
- Characters listen to music together
All of these scenarios, and the countless others that you could come up with, come with their own unique details, questions, and potential sources of conflict. Have you ever tried to figure out with a group of friends what you were going to watch on Netflix? It’s basically a sure fire way to do everything but actually decide on something to watch. You start talking about the weird things you find in the deep reaches of Netflix or has anyone seen that documentary on Tiny Houses and you argue about whether you should watch someone new or a classic and the next thing you know you’re trying to decide where to order food from because now it’s been an hour and everyone is hungry.
These “extracurricular” scenes allow you to start developing some of your character’s other muscles, and you get to know who they are when the events of your plot aren’t happening. Take note of anything interesting or useful that comes out. Sometimes you’ll discover thing that end up really informing your character and how you tell your stories. Does your character have a favorite food you didn’t know before? Depending on your story that could actually come up later. Do they always wear a necklace they got from their father? Might be time to add in that bit of description. It could even turn into a full fledged plot point.
Even when you don’t discovered new pieces of information, every moment you spend writing your characters is a moment you spend getting to know them a little better. For people that live in our heads, sometimes you’ll be surprised how little you really know about your characters until you start fleshing them out this way.
Creating a character profile is another great tool for getting to know your characters better. Answer the basic question— Name, Age, Location, Occupation— but then go a little deeper. One great tool I learned in a playwriting course is to ask yourself as many questions as you about your characters. Think of the kinds of questions you ask people when you’re first getting to know them. Set aside some time to write down every question that you can think of, no matter how specific or obscure, and then answer them. This is also a great place to incorporate any details you uncover in your “improv” scenes.
During an acting exercise someone once asked me what my character’s father did for a living. I made the answer up on the spot, but it ended up deepening the character for me and giving her motivation I didn’t know was missing. If you’re not used to it, it can feel silly doing all these “extra” work, but you never know what detail will make all the difference.
Does this really make for better characters?
If you’re thinking to yourself, “this sounds like pre-writing. I’m not really into that” I can tell you that I haven’t always been one for writing out character profiles and notating character beats. In writing and in acting I have done a lot of winging it (or “pantsing” as some writers call it- flying by the seat of your pants). Sometimes that works just fine, you get by, no one calls you out on “not doing the work.”
But none of my best work has happened that way. I’ve never completed anything and thought, “this is so great. I’m glad I didn’t do any prep work!” But I have abandoned projects and wished later that I had given them structure to start with, to help me keep going.
I wondered for a long time why some projects just clicked and others didn’t. What was the difference between the work I was most proud of and the work I tried not to think about? What made the difference between me finishing something and abandoning it midstream? Deeply realized characters is one of the common features I’ve found. The work I’m most proud of, the things I return to again and again, have characters I knew intimately. They kept me going and always gave me more to write about.
I do my best to make building great characters the foundation of everything I work on now. I can’t promise any silver bullets or guaranteed solutions, but I can promise that no one regrets having great characters. You want a great character? Get ready to dig deep.
Want to learn more about creating compelling characters?
I rolled up my best information on character creation and my favorite supporting exercises and turned them into a 5-day free email course. This course goes in-depth on the topics I lay out in this blog post, and provides a short lesson each day along with a generative prompt to help you explore your characters. You’ll come away from the course with two fleshed out characters and the tools to create many more- all in 5-days!