When writing, do you ever find yourself making the facial expressions or body movements of the characters in the scene? I know I do. *smile*
In that small way, most writers are like actors, acting out the story for our characters. However, there’s even more we can do to use other acting skills to help our writing and our voice.
Today, I’m excited to continue the schedule of guest posters filling in for me during NaNoWriMo. We started last week with Tamar Hela, sharing her insights into how to stay connected to the writing community no matter where life takes us, and earlier this week, Red L. Jameson helped us turn envy into something good. Now today we’re happy to be joined by Libby Heily.
Libby, who studied acting in school but enjoys writing and improvising, is here to share her tips for how the various skills of acting—not just the performance aspect, but the character development aspects too—can help us with our characters. We can deepen our understanding of our characters, strengthen their point of view and voice, and sharpen their dialogue.
Please welcome Libby Heily! *smile*
How Acting Skills Can Help Our Voice
Writing a novel is hard. In 70,000+ words, authors must sweep the reader away to another world and make every moment believable. We must also develop every character into a unique being. To accomplish this takes a lot of effort and requires many skills.
I’ve been reading and writing for years, and I’ve developed tricks and tools that make the process easier and smoother. Many of those I gleaned from my years studying acting and improv.
Acting, at first glance, may seem like it has no place in writing, but the two crafts have some interesting crossover skills. When you act, you don’t try to portray a character, you become them.
Actors often delve deeper than the written text to truly find the character. When studying acting, you not only learn about breath, movement, voice, and projection, you also learn to break down a play until you understand it inside and out.
As a writer, I was able to use some of what I learned to help make my stories more believable and entertaining.
Tip #1: Use Character Journals
One way an actor finds their character is to write a character journal. The actor will use the play as a jumping off point and cull all available information about the character they are going to portray.
The character’s age, ethnicity, birth place, current living situation, what they say about themselves, what they say about other characters, how they’re described by other characters, and the actions that the character takes throughout the play all reveal their true natures and motivations.
Using that information, the actor will then begin to write a diary as the character. Every actor has a different technique for this process.
A few common techniques are:
- Write an entry from your character’s POV from when they were 10, 20, 30, etc to their present age
- Write an entry for every milestone your character has faced (first day of school, first kiss, graduation, marriage, etc)
- If your character has a formative experience discussed in the play, write several entries on their life before the event, life directly after, and life just before the play begins
- Don’t plan, just start as your character and see where it takes you
Using Journals to Discover Character Information
Keeping a diary is an intimate affair. Diaries are where we write our most secret thoughts. We write down the events in our life as we see them without any outside interference. To write in a journal as your character not only allows you to see the world through their eyes, but it might trigger new information that will help your story as well.
For Tough Girl, I wrote a character journal for the main character, Reggie, who was being bullied by a few kids at her school. Through that journal, I discovered the character of Leon, her only friend. Without the journal, Leon would never have existed. He became an integral part of the plot.
Using Journals to Discover Character Voice
Writing as your character might also help you to nail down their voice. The way your character phrases their ideas says something about their lives.
- Do they say “soda” or “pop”?
- What do they call their mother? Mother? Mom? Ma? Or do they use their mother’s first name?
- Does your character reference pop songs, Shakespeare, movie quotes, or do they shun all references preferring to use only their own words?
Best Advice for Character Journaling
I’m not suggesting that we write a full 100 page diary. A few entries will do, somewhere between five and ten. Each entry should only be a few pages long.
What you’ll find is that by the end of that process, you’ll know your character on a whole new level and you will most likely generate new ideas. You might even take a few lines from the journal and insert them directly into your novel.
Tip #2: Embrace the Art of Reading Aloud
My writing group in Raleigh was recently visited by crime author Eryk Pruitt. When he discussed his writing process, he mentioned meeting up with fellow authors to read aloud from their WIPs. Every week, they would each read a full chapter. Eryk discovered that through that process he could tell what was and wasn’t working by the level of audience engagement.
I’ve done several readings for my book, Welcome to Sortilege Falls, and I agree with Eryk. Reading aloud in front of an audience will definitely tell you what’s working and what isn’t working.
But I’ll go one step further and say that writers should also read aloud at home. This is a step I don’t take until I’m nearly done with a book or short story.
Reading Aloud for Voice and Flow
Once I’m in my final drafts, I settle in and read aloud as I edit. I don’t use full projection. Like most people, I can’t read aloud for hours without sustaining a few serious vocal injuries.
Instead, I read in a soft voice but with full emotional inflection. This allows me to become the characters as I speak their dialogue. Reading aloud ensures that each character has a distinct, unique voice.
It also helps with the flow of the prose. Once we’ve read and reread our manuscripts silently several times, it’s easy for our eyes to gloss over what’s on the page. When you read aloud, you might stumble on a line and only then realize that the structure is convoluted.
Best Advice for Reading Aloud
I recommend only reading aloud thirty minutes a day to start, unless you have a well-trained voice that can do more without risk of injury. Pro-tip: keep water beside you as you read aloud. Your vocal cords will grow dry and need relief.
Tip #3: Go Deeper with Syntax and Word Choice
When I studied theater in college, we read everything from Aphra Behn to Tom Stoppard. That was a wonderful introduction to dialogue.
Plays are unique in that they are mostly dialogue with a bit of stage direction thrown in for context, typically. Every playwright has the distinct challenge of telling their story with almost only dialogue.
While this challenge can be daunting, it forces the playwright to develop the character’s voices in a very visceral way. As a playwright, I learned quickly that it’s not just what someone says but how they say it that defines the character.
Differentiating Our Characters’ Voices
First, there’s the location, age, and education level of the character that has to be accounted for. In True West, by Sam Shepard, we see the distinctions very early on the play. This link will take you to the Youtube video should you wish to see the first scene.
The two brothers have had very different adult lives. Lee, the older brother played by John Malkovich, has been a wanderer and a law breaker, learning his lessons from life. Austin, played by Gary Sinese, is the younger brother who’s received more education and now works as a screenwriter.
Just in the first few sentences, we know a good bit about the brothers’ backgrounds.
LEE: So, Mom took off for Alaska, huh?
LEE: Sorta’ left you in charge.
AUSTIN: Well, she knew I was coming down here so she offered me the place.
LEE: You keepin’ the plants watered?
LEE: Keepin’ the sink clean? She don’t like even a single tea leaf in the sink ya’ know.
In the above exchange, we can see that the two brothers have very different speech patterns. Austin, when he chooses to speak more than a word at a time, speaks in complete, grammatically correct sentences.
Lee doesn’t finish some of his words and uses more laid back, slang-type phrases. “Y’know” instead of “You know” or “Sorta” instead of “Sort of”. Already, we can tell that the two brothers have had different life experiences.
Including Subtext in Character Voices
There’s another hint in this dialogue that’s not obvious right away, but becomes evident once you’ve watched the scene or read the full play. Lee is dangerous. He has a temper.
Austin is well aware of his brother’s anger issues and that might be why he answers in very terse sentences. The less Austin says, the less Lee can comment on and the fewer chances for triggering Lee’s temper. The full play can be viewed on Youtube and I highly recommend it.
Using Voice to Add Characterization in Dialogue
Once we have the basics down, what else can we use dialogue to tell our audience? A good bit.
What if your character went to Harvard and is now a lawyer but still uses several phrases he learned as a gang member in New York? What does it say about your character that he holds onto those phrases?
What if your main character is a high school student in rural Alabama who uses phrases she learned watching the BBC? Does this express her desire to travel?
Or how about using “ain’t” or “reckon”? Those words set us up for a certain personality. Even the use of “ma’am” vs “miss” can tell us about a character.
Using Voice to Develop Deeper Meanings and Themes
I’ll leave you with an example of how word choice can impact a story.
One of my favorite examples of excellent word choice in dialogue comes from Edward Albee. I read Zoo Story in college and completely fell in love. Albee was originally a poet and, as such, learned to be economical with his words.
There’s a line from Zoo Story, which is basically one long monologue, that stuck out for me. Jerry is a loner and is desperate to make a connection with another human being. He talks to Peter, a publishing executive, and tells him all about his life.
At one point, he describes the building in which he lives and all the residents. There is a woman in his building who sits alone behind her locked door but cries so loudly that she can be heard in the hallway.
Here is the line as delivered in the play (caps indicate character is upset and/or yelling):
Jerry: …WHO IS A WOMAN WHO CRIES WITH DETERMINATION BEHIND HER CLOSED DOOR
A woman who cries with determination. I’ve never seen an explanation from Albee about the line, but I always took it to mirror Jerry’s own need to connect.
This woman sits, isolated and alone, a locked door keeping her safe from the world, but she cries with determination. I always took it as her determination to be heard, for her pain to be felt.
Maybe she wanted someone to break the door down and rescue her. Maybe she just wanted her pain to be known. It’s not clear.
But, Albee could have chosen any word. Loudly would have been a common choice. But he went a different route. A woman who cries with determination is quite different than a woman who cries loudly.
Now let us go forth, and write with determination.
Libby Heily began writing after spending years as an obsessive reader. She’s written plays, screenplays, flash fiction, short stories, and novels.
Awards include 2011 semi-finalist for the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference and a 2011 Honorable Mention for The Ohio State Newark New Play Contest for her play Stuff, as well as a Pushcart Prize Nomination for her short story Grow Your Own Dad.
Her novels include Tough Girl and Welcome to Sortilege Falls. When not spending time in made up places with invisible friends, she enjoys reading, running, hiking, and performing improv in Raleigh, NC.
Sixteen-year-old Grape Merriweather has just move to Sortilege Falls and already she knows something isn’t right. A small pack of teenage models, too beautiful for words, holds the town in their sway. The models have no plans on making Grape’s life easy. But no matter how cruel they are to Grape and the other Normals, no one can stay angry with them for long.
Grape’s life changes for the better, or so she thinks, when Mandy, the only nice model, befriends her. But that’s when the trouble truly begins. Mandy’s friendship places Grape smack in the middle of a medical mystery that has the entire town on edge. One by one, the models fall ill from an incurable disease. Grape quickly realizes that the models’ parents are hiding a secret, even as they watch their children die. To save her only friend, Grape will have to find the truth—and that means putting her life in danger.
Thank you, Libby! These are great tips for deepening our voice!
I loved her point about using dialogue to add characterization. When uncertain, my hero of Ironclad Devotion speaks more formally, throwing “ma’am”s and the like into his sentences, but his blacksmith journeyman training took him to England, where he picked up a few British slang terms that slip out when he’s really thrown for a loop. These details can add depth to our characters, making them seem like they’ve lived full lives.
Many times, when we think of acting, we think of the performance aspect, but there are far more skills that apply behind the scenes and those same skills can help us really get into the deep point of view of our characters. *smile*
How do you get deep into a character’s voice and point of view? What helps you add characterization elements to your characters? Which of these tips is most helpful to you? Can you think of any other acting skills that might help our writing? Do you have any questions for Libby?
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