Sometimes writing feels like acting.
I am not an actress… not really. I certainly have my dramatic moments, and dramatic flair, and I have been called a Drama Queen once or twice in my life, I suppose…. I did theater workshops on occasion, and did some acting here and there before I went to college. But I never really pursued it thoroughly, not done more than the passing workshop here or there.
However, I still feel that writing is similar to acting. At least, the way I write is.
It is not unusual for me to sit and make faces. Sometimes carefully watching myself in a mirror, sometimes just paying attention to how it feels to make those faces. Practicing expressions. And I watch people (as discreetly as I can… TV and movies are great for this, really) studying the expressions that they make, the ways in which they move their face to communicate certain things, or when they don’t think anyone is watching. Then I try to mimic some of those expressions (which is how I know that there are certain things my face cannot do.. like raising a single eyebrow in any significant manner. This does not, however, keep me from having characters raise eyebrows).
And when I am working on a scene, imagining it or actually writing it, I will try my best to really be in the scene. I want to understand what my character is seeing, smelling, tasting, feeling, doing. And for at least some of the supporting characters I need to do the same, to help better understand their actions and responses. Even if nearly none of this makes it to the page (and often it doesn’t unless I’m writing a particularly descriptive segment) it helps me get into the story more, better understand how my character might react. If someone breaks some minorly bad news when you’re well fed and warm, you’re likely to respond differently than if you are hungry and cold. If you are facing a challenging situation and find yourself surrounded by a familiar scent that brings forth good memories it might shift how you approach things. My first drafts don’t always include this kind of reflection — or if they do it tends to be pretty rough — but when I am reworking a scene I like to step into it as much as I can.
So, say Mariella is walking up to a small cottage at the edge of her village, and the fence around the property is covered in honeysuckle. It isn’t enough for me to just note that, but I want to think about what impact (if any) the honeysuckle has for her. It is of course influenced by why she’s going to this cottage, and what association she may have with it. But, putting that aside, I like to take a moment and close my eyes, and remember the smells that I want to evoke. I think back to what encounters I might have had with honeysuckle (it grew near my grandparents house). I remember the smell, the way the bees hovered around, and the sweet taste. And then I have to separate out my own nostalgia from what my character might feel, think, experience, and observe.
Perhaps this cottage is near the ocean, and a storm is brewing off shore. I think about the ways that the sky shifts, the scents that may be drifting in the air, the growing winds, the seagulls cry.
It’s possible that the entire experience of walking to the cottage could consist of just a few sentences:
“Mariella slowly made her way to where the small cottage, trying to ignore the increasingly urgent cry of the gulls as she approached. The winds carried with them a sliver of cold and dampness, at odds with the blue sky above. But by the time she reached the front gates the sky had filled with darkened clouds, and the normally sickening scent of the honeysuckle that surrounded the cottage was somewhat tempered by the crisp salty air.”
And, yes, much of that description could get cut out in later revision — depending on the tone of the rest of the story. I have a tendency to get very descriptive in some moments and very stark in others. But now I have a much better sense of how Mariella feels about approaching the cottage, and will be better able to settle into her mind while she does… whatever it is she is doing in that cottage. (And I totally came up with that example for this post.. but now kind of want to find out what’s happening — perhaps more Mariella adventures will be forthcoming!)
If the character is in pain, if they’ve been hurt or wronged, I allow myself the space to delve into that place, to draw forth those emotions so I can really write as though I were in the same place. It can make writing a roller-coaster, and an exhausting thing to do — but so very much worth it.
And this approach does make me feel, at the end, as though I have lived through many things without leaving my chair. And my attempts to get into the minds and hearts of a character extend beyond the main character — I also want to try to understand what is happening in the other characters, because I want their interactions to be authentic to who those characters are.
At the moment the novel I am focusing on has one main character, and a small cast of primary supporting characters. A recent scene I was working on dealt just with her and her dad as they prepared to step into a ballroom full of guests — nobility and royalty from far away. And I had to get into both of their minds.
I had to imagine her excitement and anxiety about what was coming (her first ball!), thinking about what it is like to be standing on the precipice of a moment that, while it may seem relatively small, you know is the first step in something huge. I had to get into her father mind, watching potential enemies in his home, knowing that some of the guests carried with them major secrets that he hoped they would continue to hold, and dealing with his own preference to hide out in his study, or go for a ride on his horse, rather than interact with such a crowd. And I had to figure out how those thoughts, those emotions, translated to their actions and interactions.
I say “had” to… but really I love this work. I love that I get to sit down and pretend to be other people, without the pressure of memorizing lines and acting those parts on a stage. Instead I just get into their heads, their personalities, and allow myself to enjoy the story they have to tell. A roller-coaster, but one I’m so glad to be able to ride.