I come from a theater background – sort of. Basically, I spent a lot of my time singing and dancing and acting (badly) when I was growing up and then in college I spent a lot of my time directing and acting (badly) while I was getting my political science degree.
I’ve always talked about how using the basics of improv helps writers get over things like writer’s block, etc., and at Vermont College, I focused my graduation presentation on using those tools to help kids write.
Lately though, I’ve been thinking more about how authors are really using all the roles of theater when they create novels. We have to be actors because we have to live inside the characters and make them three-dimensional representations of people. We have to be directors because we put the story together and tell the characters where to go, and determine the viewpoint that we’re seeing the character. We have to be set designers as we create setting. We’re stage crew bringing props in and out. We’re producers because we’re putting the whole production together. We’re writers because… Well, we’re writing.
But right now, I just want to focus on how authors are really actors playing every single role in the story. That’s a lot of effort, honestly.
Method Authors – Method acting is when you immerse yourself in the role; you become someone other than yourself. Do writers do this? Sometimes, but not often. Usually we spend a lot of time researching things our characters like but not becoming the characters and/or pretending to be them. I wonder why.
Living In Another World – Actors live in the world of the moment, of the world that they are acting in. Novelists need to do this too. We have to immerse ourselves in the world that we’ve created, to envision the details, see the events, feel the feels. The best novels use concrete details to show character and place. To find concrete details, we have to see concrete details. We have to build worlds piece by piece and symbol by symbol until they are believable.
Back Story – When I was training in theater with Paul Kuritz and Pope,L, and Marty Andrecki, they all focused on the back story of the roles we played. To understand the character in the moment, we had to understand the moments that came before, what brought our character to this place to react this specific way in the play. And we didn’t need to know just the history of the character, but the history of the world and the cultural implications that influenced that character. Authors sometimes do this, too, but I think some of us could do it more.
Study Real People – To understand nuance and tics and behavior, actors often study real people and model a character on that person, or at least model a behavior of a character on that person. Writers often do that, too.
Acting and writing require empathy. You have to move outside yourself and envision how someone else will react, feel, think, instigate. That’s important when trying to create a world of civility and positive change.
Random Exercise That’s Supposed To Be Helpful
A lot of the time at school visits, I talk about the weirdest places I’ve gotten ideas and how some of those ideas are so bizarre that a sane human would just thrust them out of their mind. I talk about how you have to ‘say yes’ to your ideas no matter how weird they are, no matter how much we doubt them.
I talk about how the idea for the NEED series came from seeing a strange smelling man on my way into a fair. He had a tail wrapped in fabric. He had silver eyes. Enough said, right? While other people might have thought he was a random guy doing cosplay, my brain jumped to “human-sized pixie about to cause an apocalypse.” Since, I didn’t reject that idea and wrote about it, I ended up getting a book series that was an international bestselling.
So, what I do is have kids stand up with me and one of them has to say ‘no,’ to everything we throw out. So it goes like,
“Hey, let’s write a story about human-sized pixies?”
“And they have to save the world?”
“Gerbils who fall in love?”
“People who climb a mountain and find a rainbow unicorn?”
And it goes on like this for a minute and when I stop them, I ask, “So what happened?”
Usually, everyone says, “Nothing. Nothing happened.”
I ask if we got a story. And the answer is always, “No.” We laughed, but we did not get a story.
Writers do this to ourselves all the time. Actually, people do this all the time. We reject ideas for being too weird, too overdone, too normal, too abnormal, too anything. The secret is to go with the idea, to say yes and see what happens. That’s how stories are made.