#10 DEVELOPING CHARACTER, Part 4:
Acting-Inspired Character Development Exercises
Bobbi JG Weiss 5/14/14
In my last last blog we talked about using real-life people as models in the early stages of character development. Now let’s focus on actual physical things you can do, besides writing, to help you discover and develop your characters.
Here are a couple of exercises that I sometimes do when I’m in the character-development stage. These are from my book Writing Is Acting: How to Improve the Writer’s Onpage Performance.
During the years when I was training to be an actor, and during the time that I persued acting as a career, I learned a ton of interesting ways to develop character by doing, not by thinking. Or should I say, the physical acts of doing something can often help the brain’s creative thought processes. If you are a busy person with little time for daydreaming, take these exercises seriously. They will allow you to work on your novel/short stories/whatever even while you’re trudging through housework and even running errands!
Technique: Wash Dishes Clean House
Purpose: To use movement as a distraction to allow for gut-level character analysis.
Origin: I created this exercise for my own writing use, but I wouldn’t be surprised if acting coaches have thought of it, too.
Do the dishes, all the while pretending to be your character. Really try to respond to the task at hand as your character would. At first it might be hard to keep your own thoughts from intruding, but don’t worry. This is like a form of meditation. It takes practice.
I do this exercise often, and not only do I get my dishes done fast (it works with other household chores, too!), but I learn all kinds of things about my characters. Once I almost broke a dish because my character, frustrated in a scene I was in the midst of plotting, suddenly responded to his frustration by having a childish hissy fit. The anger that flashed through me felt so appropriate that I gave that character a hair-trigger temper that soon became his most entertaining feature — and the biggest personal fault he struggled to correct in the story.
Another time I composed the entire background of a character because the automatic physical task of doing dishes, like singing in the shower, lulled my inhibitions and really let my imagination take over. I imagined myself as my character with a friend in the kitchen with me, and I started babbling about “my” childhood. Some things that came out of my mouth I didn’t like, so the writer inside me tossed those ideas away. Other things I said aloud became part of the character’s personal history.
Technique: Shop Till You Drop
Purpose: To experience how your character interacts with the real world.
Origin: Same as above.
Go shopping as your character, to a mall or even just the grocery store. Not only can this be incredibly fun (nobody knows who you are so you’re free to behave in character), but you can see how people react to your character. Of course, I don’t suggest playing out the desires of a mass murderer or an alien warlord in this manner. Keep in mind that you’re in public. But I do this exercise all the time. It helps me develop how a character walks, how he talks, what kinds of clothes she likes, what stores he prefers — all kinds of ideas pop to mind during this exercise:
• how a character feels about consumerism, humanity’s use or waste of resources and thus the future of the world
• whether the character easily spends money, on what and why, how she reacts to sale signs (is she easily manipulated?), whether she’s poor or rich, how hard she works to get her money, what job she holds, if she even likes to shop or if she resents having to part with money for any reason at all
• how a character reacts to other people, if he hates being touched even in passing, if he enjoys the sport of weaving through crowds, if he loves the noise or hates it, if he even notices other people at all.
The possibilities are endless.
Hint: If you’re bad at remembering details, bring along a mini tape recorder or a smart phone dictation app. Every now and then during the exercise dictate what you’ve learned about your character into it. Again, don’t feel self-conscious about doing this in public. Who’s really looking?
You can, of course, take your characters anywhere. I’ve “worn” characters while I drive, and it actually made me drive differently, more aggressively, more carefully, etc., depending on the character. Gotta watch that kind of thing, though. Keep yourself safe. (Although I will say that a certain character I wear loves to drive and drives really well, and believe it or don’t, he comes in handy when I drive on Los Angeles freeways.)
I have worn characters when going to parties. That can be tricky. The character has to be subtle because people there know you. But it’s fun to surprise friends by saying and doing things they don’t expect from you.
I’ve watched TV as certain characters and found myself watching programs I wouldn’t otherwise watch (wrestling?? Three’s Company re-runs??). I’ve turned on the radio as a character and found myself listening to music I’d never normally listen to (country western?? heavy metal??). I’ve perused bookstores as different characters and found myself looking at books that normally don’t interest me in the slightest (military history?? sports??).
Get creative and have fun.
If you have more time to work on your writing at a desk, here’s another idea. This exercise is sort of a version of fanfic. Yeah yeah, okay, a lot of you writers probably don’t like fanfic. A lot of you probably do. Doesn’t matter to which group you belong, this exercise is helpful.
Write a scene in which your character meets your favorite TV or movie character(s). Have them go on a short adventure, or whatever scenario is appropriate to the TV/movie character(s) world. Write the story or scene seriously. Focus on making the setting solid. Describe the movements and attitudes of all characters involved. Get some good dialog going. Be thorough.
I suggest such an exercise because, if you involve outside characters that you really like, it may boost your imagination. The pleasure you experience in playing with those TV/movie characters may spill over into your own character, thus making the act of creation easier and more fun. You’ll probably discover traits of your character that you never would think of otherwise. That’s the point.
One last suggestion: if you’re really up a tree with your character and just can’t make progress developing them, write a scene where that character goes to a psychiatrist (maybe even a psychiatrist TV/movie character you like!). Let the imaginary phychiatrist drill him/her with questions, and force your character to answer.
So I guess this wraps up my 4-part blog about character development. Hope it was helpful!
I worked at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego for a couple of years. No, not as an actor, just staff. The above pic is me, costumed for a special Globe event at the time.
Working at the Globe gave me an opportunity to watch some great actors do their thing — plus I got a chance to chat with a few of them in the coffee room! This gave me some perspective on the art of acting and, later, the art of writing.
People who practice these arts work very hard, even after they’re famous. Practice, practice, practice. Sounds dull, doesn’t it? But it’s not, not if you love what you’re doing. Try to keep that in mind when your story seems to be going into the dumps. DON’T. GIVE. UP.