In this post we ask and answer the question: What can actors teach writers about character?
Experienced writers are our guides into the vast unknown of storytelling. They can teach us if we should open the dusty tomb or not.
What Can Other Writers Teach Us?
Seasoned writers can warn us of the Slough of Despond through which all writers must stagger. Especially when tackling the soggy middle sections of our books. They offer the best tips on how to battle the great and terrible Dragons of Procrastination. Or how to befriend them. They teach us how to read the Map of Plot, or use that map to light the Fire of Imagination.
The best writers know the maps as well as they do because they drew them. It was their ink-stained fingers that put the ‘X that marks the spot’ on the parchment in the first place! This makes life easier for the rest of us.
Take Charlotte Brontë, for example.
What Did Charlotte Brontë Do?
Writers, and readers, owe a lot to Charlotte for her creation of Edward Fairfax Rochester in her novel, Jane Eyre.
Rochester was the original ‘tall, dark and handsome, brooding’ hero. His appeal has never wavered. Pop in a ‘tall, dark, handsome and brooding’ and readers have an instant picture in their mind’s eye. Just think of Rhett Butler, or even Wolverine! But is tall, dark, and handsome enough?
What Can Actors Teach Writers About Character?
It’s the choices actors make about the character they are playing that matter. For example, how does David Tennant’s interpretation of Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing compare with Kenneth Branagh’s? It’s simple, really. The way Tennant plays the man reveal aspects of the aristocratic soldier that Branagh’s doesn’t, and vice versa.
This doesn’t mean that either actor is wrong. It means that lines of dialogue and stage directions aren’t enough. Just as ‘tall, dark, and handsome’ isn’t enough.
A good actor reveals a living character. As writers, we should be doing the same thing. Every character in our books should be a living, breathing person.
When actor Dame Helen Mirren is deciding whether to take a role, she doesn’t worry about long she will be on screen, or how many lines she will have to learn.
She looks to see if the character she will be playing is on the last page of the script. If they’re not, she works backwards until she finds:
- Where, and how, they exit the story?
- What sort of impact does that exit have?
- Is it meaningful?
- Does it impact the story and other characters in a significant way?
In the end, it’s the way Mirren plays the character that leaves footprints on the stage after her exit.
What Can Writers Learn From This?
Of course, we should always consider the requirements of the story first. Apart from deciding if the character is ‘tall, dark, and handsome’ or not, we often forget to ask:
- Do I have unimportant characters in my story?
- Would anyone care if I cut them from the book?
- What impact does this character have on other characters?
- What is the significance of that impact?
- What would be the best way to show that impact?
How much richer would our stories be if we did ask these questions?
The Last Word
- Characters that linger.
- Characters that are hard to forget.
- Characters that leave footprints on our readers’ minds.
If you want to learn more about how to create rich characters, Writers Write is the perfect place to learn.
Top Tip: If you want to find out more about what writers can learn from how actors work, read our post: Why Method Writing Makes You A Better Author
by Elaine Dodge. Elaine is the author of The Harcourts of Canada series, Elaine trained as a graphic designer, then worked in design, advertising, and broadcast television. She now creates content, mostly in written form, for clients across the globe, but would much rather be drafting her books and short stories.
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