Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Growing and Knowing Characters

I'm taking an acting class this summer. I did some acting once many years ago, but I'll always be an amateur. It's more or less a chance to challenge myself. I've been a little too complacent about writing and creation and drama. Too much teacher, not enough student.

Actors and writers come to know characters in very similar ways. You listen. You create. Actors, especially stage actors, spend a great deal of time working up back story. It helps them to find something analogous in themselves -- a hook to attach their own psyches to the character's. It's important to figure out if a character is, say, telling a joke to lob something over another character's head, or to entertain him, or to entertain himself, or...whatever. It's not always a simple answer. It's like life. There's usually several answers at the same time. Back story lets an actor engage that complexity in a visceral way.

Writers create back story too, of course. I've known writers who go through very organized processes to find it: writing out lists of the contents of pockets and carefully constructed childhood memories, and comprehensive psychologies and all that. I've never gotten that far with those methods. Yes, they can help. But I usually find my characters' back stories in my own journal. When I'm coming up with a new story, the journal shifts back and forth between me and my characters. It's messy. It takes more time. But it feels more organic to me. I can rely on what I've learned rather than consulting my notes.

If you've read my blog before, there's a good chance you've heard me go on and on about the value of a structured process to capture and streamline the chaos of creation.

And as I'd worked up this new story, I'd been following my own structured process very carefully. Each day I work up a new synopsis and logline from scratch. Each day I take what's in me, add a good night's sleep, and try to refine the conceit into something more compelling. Some days you make a lot of progress. Some days you make none.

After three or four weeks, I'll usually start building a kind of miniscript. I won't write dialogue. I won't write what I don't know. I'll concentrate on getting good, strong set ups down on the page. I'll make the conflict clear. I'll make the characters' objectives clear. I'll make my own goal clear. I'll work through an entire script that way.

But this time it didn't quite work that way. I kept writing and rewriting the synopsis. I kept wriggling around through back story in my journal. The characters, who *should* be leaping off the page (if I say so myself), just weren't.

I took the leap, and just decided to write. And while the characters did follow the basic shape of the synopsis, they inevitably had better ways of getting themselves in trouble than I'd found on my own. They spoke more sharply. They acted from their own problems.

And there were more problems than I counted on. I found myself writing quickly. But then I've been going back, more like an actor than a writer, and finding more back story. More ways of looking at them. Finding what's true.

And here I am, more student than teacher, humbled by what these characters have to offer me and the story. So much more than I imagined. I'm humble again. And I'm happier writing than I have been in a long time.

And yeah, I'll probably end up chucking out months of work. So what? It's a first draft. And I'm happy.

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