In theater, I love it when my actors take their characters deeper. “I couldn't believe that was Sarah!” an audience member told me. “I came to see Ben perform, but I got lost in the story and forgot about him.” These compliments mean Sarah and Ben walked in their characters' shoes so convincingly, the audience was transported into the story through suspended disbelief. And that means my actors did good. (The director smiles.)
As a writer, I want my characters to be rich, deep, and real. So multi-layered that a reader is pulled into the story, mind and heart, at least, for a little while.
In the first week of theater practice, actors don't “get” the person they'll eventually portray. But after many hours of deepening exercises, talking in character, and reciting lines, someone new emerges—a mixture of the character AND the actor. If you saw the same play in two venues, each performance would be different because of that unique blend of actors and characters.
To reach that place of “becoming,” we do exercises to deepen characterization that an author can use to take characters deeper in writing also. Here are a few of my favorites:
Write a letter.
My first assignment to the actors, besides memorization, is to write a letter in character. Sometimes the letter is addressed to me. Other times it'll be to a person in the story. The mayor. The Baron. The cousin. This process helps the actor take a peek inside the character's head and see what drives him, what makes him sad or happy, what he wants in life. As a novelist, I've used this technique to dig into a character's reasons for doing a certain thing. Maybe the protagonist writes her grandmother and shares her frustrations with her husband. The antagonist could write “Dear Abby” and explain his horrible upbringing. Writing a letter in the hero's viewpoint takes the character's journey to another level. It deepens the backstory. It improves internal dialogue. It makes me understand my characters.
Talk in character.
One of my favorite warm-up exercises is for two actors to go to the front of the class and talk in character. “Talk about chocolate.” “Debate the Baron's rudeness.” “Gossip about Miss Mable.” This is perfect for improv, but it's also a great stimulation for deepening characters in writing. Go off-script. Take a few minutes and have a gab session between two people about a problem in the story or let them yak about another character. This gig isn't for inclusion in your story, but simply to deepen characters' thoughts and personalities. Of course, you never know, this dialogue might be perfect for your manuscript. Let yourself go and talk in character for a while and see where it leads.
Get your shoes on!
I ask my actors, "Do you have your shoes on?" This doesn't mean their tennies. This question refers to them “becoming” their characters. Sometimes, I have them leave the area when I tell them, “Get your shoes on.” They step out of the room and return in character. As writers, we have to do this also. We answer a telephone and get pulled from our work, maybe even come away discouraged. We have to think about bills, dinner, marketing, whatever. Sometimes, it can be difficult to get back into our character's head. And we must do that for deep POV. It can help to step out of the room for a moment, whether physically or mentally, and reenter with “our shoes on.” Now, I'm Ty. I rock my eyebrows like him, sag in the chair, etc. Whatever it takes, I want to stay in that character's thoughts and feelings until I'm ready to switch.
I love interacting with my actors in character. In fact, I rarely call an actor by his real name. I refer to each one as his/her character's name. This helps them stay in character, and helps me direct from a different perspective. I want actors to know the characters they're becoming inside and out. I want Ben to understand why the Baron acts the way he does. What hurt him in the past? Why is he mean? What did he have for breakfast? What are his dreams? I stand at the head of the class and ask questions. Students answer in character.
Writers can do the same thing to go into deep POV. You can start by making a list of questions to ask a character. Why are you treating her that way? What were you thinking? What were you doing last night? What did you have for dinner? Spend a few minutes free-writing answers as if you are the character. This isn't a goal-oriented exercise. It's not even for use in the story. Although, an idea might pop up that will bring a whole new twist to your tale. The real purpose is to deepen your character. To explore his thoughts and dreams and pursuits. To think and breathe like him. Anyone can write a simple story. It takes work “becoming” that character.
Have fun with backstory.
Before I write a play, I write a description and brief backstory for each character. It's enough to get me into the characters' difficulties and strengths while writing. But when the actors receive their parts, they explore how they're going to bring deeper backstories to their characters. The way one actor portrays Griff Cardingham is different than the way another actor would. So it is with writing. Backstories make the difference in taking characters deeper. In acting class, when someone tells a backstory, I often have an aha! moment. “I didn't know he was Irish!” (Even though I'm the playwright.) And, I laugh. Later, when that character isn't as believable as I'd like, I remind him of his story. I inquire how that character would respond based on growing up in Ireland.
The need to deepen backstory may hit you midway through your writing. You have your pre-write-up about Clay. You know these things: he had a rough relationship with his father, he sank a boat, he robbed a bank. You know the basics. But maybe you reach a point where the writing glugs. Now's the time to explore Clay's backstory. Take it deeper, ask questions, and find those tidbits of his history like you or I would have in real life. Maybe Clay nearly drowned in the swamp by his grandmother's farm at age six, and a snake was floating in the water. Ever since, he's had a fear of snakes--and the unknown. We all have a backstory. What's your character's tale? Again, this isn't to dump a bunch of information into the story. It's to make the characters real and dimensional in our minds.
Sometimes I tell my actors, “Make me believe.” That means they aren't being passionate, they aren't getting into character, they're portrayal is shallow. What do they do? They'll have to draw from some of the above exercises to go deeper. As writers, so do we. We need to find a place where the character comes alive in us. She isn't just someone I'm talking about. For a little while, I need to become her, know her thoughts, her heart, her way of walking, and why. It's not that I've lost myself. No, I've become the character to such a degree that it's a mixture of her and me, a blending of personalities, just like my actors do onstage.
Is your character weak? Take him/her deeper. If you come to a place where you can't get over a hurdle, the protagonist seems too selfish or inept or shallow, try writing a letter in his voice. Explore through questions what the guy is thinking and feeling about seeing his old girlfriend after ten years. Or leave your writing area and return as if you are your antagonist . . . for a few minutes.
Our goal is to make the reader--or the audience--believe. It's a process of becoming. Of going deeper. Always deeper. In doing so, we make our characters live, whether it's onstage . . . or on the page.