Saturday, June 21, 2014

How to Become Your Own Character



by Nancy Means Wright


Have you ever been in a play and tried to become the person you’ve been cast to portray?  If so, you’re probably familiar with the Stanislavski method: how to make your character believable through a recall of your own anger, envy or grief. And how to transfer that emotion, through words and action, through your onstage persona. 


I recall the struggle I was having to play Mrs. Hardcastle in Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to conquer.” I couldn’t get into the head of that foolish female until one evening my adolescent son drove my car into a snowbank, which made me late for a rehearsal, and his smirks and nonchalance turned me into that irritable, jaded mother.


The Stanislavski method works for fiction as well. As I write, I try to visualize each scene as though it’s onstage. I see my protagonist laugh, weep, shriek and strike out. I try to get into the heads of both villain and sleuth, for as Umberto Eco wrote regarding his classical mystery, The Name of the Rose, One must learn “to think and reconstruct in one’s own setup and act the scene aloud , switching characters off and on with hat, cane, whip or sword."And the technique of becoming one’s character works not only for the author, Eco allows, but should be “an experience for the transformation of the reader."

In my mysteries to date, I’ve morphed into a dairy farmer (I even learned to milk and birth a cow), and an adolescent sleuth (I had four offspring and seven grandchildren on whom to eavesdrop).  I’ve attempted to become both male and female secondary characters, and the real-life, conflicted Mary Woolstonecraft. The later has become my greatest challenge, for she lived in the 18th century and I have only my imagination as a time machine.
But in order to enter into the mindset of a character, one must also be familiar with the language and events of that person’s times. To be comfortable in Mary’s head, I read six biographies, her own writings; and most comfortable of all, her collected letters. As I read I could hear her voice sigh or sparkle in my inner ear. Novels by other period writers , along with long slow walks in Mary’s footsteps in Ireland, England, Paris, have all offered entry into her world.

Of course, 18th century buildings have been razed, ancient cobbles torn up, and even letters have telling omissions and unanswered questions. It’s here then that our writerly imagination comes into play, filling in the blanks, adding fiction into fact. In venting or reinventing a character: hearing, visualizing, dreaming him or her (I guarantee you will)—and finally becoming that sleuth—or that villain. 

As Shakespeare’s imprisoned Richard III exclaims, attempting (like the  writer) to create a link between his solitary self and the “populous” world: “Thus play I, in one person, many people.”

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers)


You can visit Nancy Means Wright at her web and blog site: http://tinyurl.com/6voogsb. She’s also on Facebook.

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