Character Counts

Before Friday evening’s rehearsal for Richard III, our director talked to us for a few minutes. She is pleased with our progress and is excited about how the show is already coming together in places. Many of us feel the same way. Yet she shared with us her belief that for the last few days we may have been over-thinking what we were doing. (She graciously included herself in this concern.)

Thinking and analysis are good, she reminded us. However she expressed that perhaps in all of the thinking we were doing lately we were starting to get a little too far away from feeling the play, and our characters in particular. To that end, she sent each of us off for a few minutes to contemplate in silence what our characters, as we are playing them, are all about.

“The are great characters,” she said.

And they are. The time spent considering that did make my performance better that night. (It probably didn’t hurt that after the exercise, one of my monologues was the first thing we did to open rehearsal.)

Though of course they are not the same thing, writing fiction and portraying characters on the stage have many things in common. Both here and on Always Off Book I have talked about the similarities. Perhaps no similarity between the two is stronger than that of characters. In both cases to have an optimum product you must present interesting, memorable characters that feel real to the reader or audience.

Yes, the playwright does much of this. But it is the actor that must do something with what is written, and no plot, be it ever so clever, is going to save a show if the actor has no clue as to the nature of his character.

When we write fiction, some of us love our descriptions. Or we want to create a unique, intricate plot, and become a master of twists and turns. Every one of these things, when used well, can make for excellent fiction. Yet they all tend to fade into irrelevance if the characters in our stories make no impressions on our readers.

When I write fiction I am not a pantser. That is to say, I don’t wing it 100%. I do outline plot points and sequences, and write brief descriptions of characters. Not as detailed as some of my colleagues, but I do have an idea of who my characters are when I start.

I am saying nothing at all new here, of course. You’ve heard all of this before. But just as even Major League Baseball players still take batting practice everyday before a game, the fundamentals of good fiction are worth repeating.

So I thought I would share with you how I think the exercise before our rehearsal on Friday can help you get into touch and recognize characters in your fiction.

-To begin with, I thought of the lines spoken by my character during my brief meditation. What someone says may not always be an exact match of what they are feeling, but nonetheless what they say and how the choose to say it reveals a great deal about the character. Based on this, I tried to determine what my character might say in a situation not presented within the script.

Expanding his words beyond those provided by Shakespeare helped remind me that there is a universe more to him than what is seen on the pages or on the stage when I play him. I can’t consider 100% of it in detail, natrually. But if I ponder just how much there is to someone, that informs what of the character I present to others. We can and should do those for the characters we write as well.

-Then I considered how Buckingham (my character in the play) feels about the other characters. Who does he like and dislike, and why. How can I express these feelings in Buckingham, without adding more words? (Which I cannot in a script.) I think of facial expressions I can use, stances I can stand in, and how he may walk into one room vs another. I practice those things. I try them out. I see what fits. What feels authentic to my performance, I keep in. If it feels insincere or forced, no matter how popular the choice may be, I throw it out. If you can’t experiment with fiction, even with the nature of your characters, you may not be ready to write much of it.

Plus, our characters are revealed in fiction as much through what they do and how they react, as they are through description.

-“What’s my motivation,” is a stereotypical actor’s question. Yet it’s not without merit, because everything a character does on stage should have some kind of purpose. That isn’t to say that one must be trying to obtain something every second. Some people feel this is necessary, but I do not. I do however believe that a character should always desire something, and that the actor should use such desires as guideposts for how to proceed. Even if all they want is water.

In fiction we know how important motivation can be. Again, I don’t like it when I read about a character who is plotting constantly. I like characters to have down time, as well, so they feel like actual people. I just want them to always be up to something, even if that something is thinking.

-At the same time, sometimes a cigar is a cigar. If I allow myself to assign meaning to every thing my character does on stage, my performance would not only be exhausting, but stiff. Fake-looking even. Though I have worked with directors who insist that every sip of tea your character takes on stage must have its own meaning and motivation, I don’t enjoy doing so. Because when taken too far, symbolism weakens story and character. It should be a salt, lightly applied here and there, and not the meal itself.

Literary fiction does of course have a great deal of symbolism. Yet even literary works that expect to not choke the reader in prose must at times simply allow a character to walk into a room and sit down. If you try to infuse each and every action of your character with special meaning or hidden significance, your writing becomes tedious, and your meaning lost.

-I also like to prepare for rehearsal each night, and not just during last nights special exercises, by strolling around the performance space. Getting familiar with it again. Warming my senses up to it. I walk through the entrance and exists I have. And I recite to myself some speeches and lines for my character, standing where he will be standing in the show when he delivers them. I do this to become ultra-familiar with as much of the role as possible. When I do this, it can become almost second nature eventually. That way when the more difficult things arise, I have a better foundation upon which to build.

When you write fiction, think about your character in his most familiar settings. Even better, write about him there. These parts don’t have to go into your story, but write sometimes about the things you already know about your character and his story. Write a scene you are happy with three more times in different ways. Think of the part of your manuscript that gave you the least trouble, the one with which you are most satisfied, and read it over and over again. Immerse yourself into the familiar aspects of your writing, and let them guide you when you get to segments of your narrative about which you are not as certain.

-I like my characters to seem real. But I must also remember that because it is a play and they are in fact characters, they cannot be 100% in tune with our world. Any play, even a “realistic” one is full of characters who behave and speak, even think in ways slightly elevated from those in the “real” world. That is because to be economic and to hold attention, we cannot, in a play, include all the daily tedium of a person’s life.

The same is true with fiction. We must remind ourselves as writers that when we write a story, what is happening is ever so slightly elevated above, or enhanced beyond our world. It can be a near-perfect reflection of our world, but there are fewer rough edges in effective realistic fiction than there are in the world.

-Finally, I try to step into the character as I meditate at such times. See things as he might. Feel what he feels. Sympathize with his plight. Because so long as he is my character, I must sympathize with some aspect of him. If I loath him 100%, I cannot play him.

I maintain that if as an author you cannot see anything redeeming in your characters, even the evil ones, you cannot write them fully. Your readers may never know where you sympathize with one of your characters, but you will, and you will be better for it.

If you can, even try talking like one of your characters sometime, and see what sort of great dialogue you might end up with!

So, acting and writing fiction. Not twins, but cousins at least. Or friends with a lot in common. You don’t have to go on stage to make use of the suggestions I present here, though. You just need to commit yourself to the task of making characters alive. Because it is characters that keep people coming back to your story, and it is your characters they will miss when they have completed it.


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