Saturday, April 23, 2011

Writing Like Stanislavski

There are certain truisms that serve as inspiration for me. Here is one: "Stories are about people."

That should be written backwards on the forehead of everyone who writes so that they see it whenever they look in the mirror. We can love plot, we can focus on theme and genre, we can talk about word use and grammar, but unless we write about people and give the reader someone with whom to identify, we are not writing our best. How can there be catharsis, that satisfying purging of emotion that Aristotle wrote about, unless we first care about the protagonist?

But the issue of how to develop character is far more complex than agreeing on the importance of character development. Anybody who has taken any literature class has heard the teacher's mantra: "Character is developed through what the character says and how they act, and how other people respond to them." But oh, how difficult to incorporate this development seamlessly into a narrative!

In the last few weeks I've been reading up on Stanislavski, the person who gave "method acting" to theater. Stanislavski believed actors preparing for a role should give careful consideration of a character's psychological motives and that they should have personal link with the character. They should, if possible, become the character. But what about writers? If a character springs from a writer's mind, then shouldn't he already have that link? Already have a grasp of the character's psychological motives? 

Maybe, but then again maybe not. In my opinion, many authors approach characters by sweeping a paint brush across a canvas. They have some ideas, and they believe the character will define himself as the tale progresses.

"I want to discover the character as I write," someone told me once. "I can always go back and edit out inconsistencies." Hearing this made me worry that the character might become merely a projection of the writer at that point in time, and not have a life of his own (admittedly an illusion since a writer creates the character). If a protagonist is clearly set down ahead of time, then  character becomes the centerpiece of the writing. 

Like Stanislavski, I want my characters to be real for me. I find a picture of someone who I believe represents my character, and then from there I proceed to write a biography. It can be long or short, it can provide excessive backstory which will never make into the writing process, or a brief sketch---but it gives me a framework for understanding who I am dealing with. It establishes a foundation. 

Peter Styles and Ember Quatermain (yes, the daughter of the great explorer),  protagonists for THE BREACH, a steampunk novel which Christine Purcell and I are at this point shopping around, were created in just this manner. In fact, since THE BREACH is a collaboration, it was even more important that they become solid characters for the authors. Since two minds bring two different perspectives, having a pre-established profile kept us consistent and on the right path. 

I know there are many people who don't want to write this way. They believe a work should be organic, that it should evolve through a natural process. They want to discover who they are writing about. And that's fine. There is no one way to write. However, discoveries often take you down false trails and you have to backtrack and rediscover the one that feels right. The reader often doesn't have the patience to follow you down those false trails if you forget to go back and edit them out, or worse, leave them in because they are interesting for you and satisfy your vanity. A false step for a character can pull a reader out of a story and thus destroy the suspension of disbelief necessary to build the connection between writer and audience.


Charles Gramlich said...

Yes, one of my great disappointments. Stories are about people. True, but horribly sad. Even when they are about animals they are realy about animals as people. Very narrow minded of our species. I long to write a story that is not about people at all. I doubt it would be read, even if I could do it. Which I have my doubts

Stewart Sternberg said...

I don't, Charles. Perhaps one could instead write about vegetables. You know.."The Celery Stalks At Midnight?"

David J. West said...

If there is a story/movie/book etc that I hate, it goes along that its probably because I dislike/am bored with ~ the characters.

Hanny said...

Good advice to remember. I suppose that's a good thing though, since it reminds us that we the readers and writers are people, and not just robots or ants fulfilling a function.

Joe Ponepinto said...

I agree, it would be great to fully understand a character's history and motives when beginning a story, but I am far too lazy to do that. I usually have just a vague idea of the conflict inherent in a situation, and go from there, letting the characters reveal themselves. And I do enjoy the discovery aspect of writing. But doing it this way means a lot of revision, since the character at the end of a story is often different from the one at the beginning.

Akasha Savage. said...

With a daughter training to be an actress I know all about the Stanislavski method! Getting to know my characters, all their quirks and funny little traits, is part of the writing process I like best; I can't put a word down on paper until they are my friends...or in some cases, enemies!