I’m just finishing rewriting and editing a new novel. I hope to publish it soon on Amazon.com. The last quarter of this Enovel, CHAOS ALLIES, needed a lot of rewriting and that meant a lot more editing. But that’s the way it goes when writing anything. President Lincoln, when writing The Gettysburg Address, wrote five different versions of it. I don’t know if anyone knows which version he finally used. But he kept it concise and edited it down to just what he wanted to say and nothing else. He gave a five-minute speech in an age when short speeches lasted an hour. And yet he said more in that short space of time than anyone before or since has ever said, with maybe the exception of John F. Kennedy. How interesting and how sad, considering the length modern political speeches, eh?
And that’s my problem, too. I want my stories and my blogs to be substantive, but too many words are just too many words.
See, one of the things CHAOS ALLIES needed was for some of the secondary characters to be fleshed out a little more, made a little more realistic. Now, there are various theories and ways of making characters more realistic, but I find the best way for me is to take bits and pieces of real people’s lives and give them to my characters.
For instance, Mancuso, a character in the latter part of my novel that mirrors the main character, Lion Biyela, made Mancuso a civil engineer, a builder of bridges and buildings. One of my brother-in-laws is a civil engineer. But Mancuso is not my brother-in-law. I took a little bit of my brother-in-law and gave it to Mancuso. Then, I thought how I would respond as an engineer, a builder of beautiful things, if I was thrown into a war, as my characters have been. How would I feel watching the things I built destroyed by the enemy? Would the destruction and violence reduce my humanity? Would I become just a killer and no longer builder? Would revenge and destruction be all that I valued?
This how writing and acting blends to together, how it mind-melds, to borrow a Star Trek idea. Actors have to find what part of a character they can relate to so they can understand the character and become that character. Even actors who are only doing the voices for animated characters need something to relate to.
Consider Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. They starred together in three Toy Story movies, yet they never acted together. Hanks spent days doing his lines in a recording booth and Allen did the same thing. They couldn’t react to each other as normal actors do on television and in films. They had to create their own energy and had to figure out how they would respond to the other character not knowing how the actor playing that character would to respond to them.
It takes a lot of skill to act without a person to respond to and that skill comes from experience.
It’s the same with writing. Think of yourself as an actor and think of how you would respond to another actor playing a character.
An experience that helped me was when I visited my eldest daughter at college. Her college was two thousand miles away, so my wife and I only visited her once a year, usually in the Spring. One day, while our daughter was in class, my wife an I went our separate ways to explore the campus. I wandered into a building which turned out to house the Humanities department. I encountered two students struggling to figure out how to play their roles in a bit play that they were going to be tested on. Not a written test, but an acting test.
Their roles were as a man who had become romantically interested in this woman who only wanted friendship from him. She thought of him like a brother while he saw in her someone he might like to marry. But they couldn’t figure out how to play those roles. What was their motivation, what did they feel?
They let me watch them struggle with not understanding their characters’ motivations. Finally, I asked if I could make some recommendations, as a writer. They said okay. First off, the students were a young man from Nigeria and a young woman from the Midwest. They had never encountered a situation in their real lives as they were being asked to perform for their class.
I told the young man that his character and the woman’s character had been good friends, which was in the script. “Your character,” I said to the young man, “has developed romantic feelings for her. You’re hurt because she’s rejected you, because she doesn’t feel the same way, but you don’t want to lose her because she’s your best friend. So you’re conflicted, you’re feeling sorrow and rejection and anger, but you’re also feeling fear, because you don’t want to loose the best friend you’ve ever had.”
For the young woman actor, I said, “You’re conflicted, too. He wants more than you want to give. You’re not interested in a romance or a more physical relationship. You feel a bit threatened, but angry, too, for his misunderstanding of your feelings. But you also don’t want to lose his friendship. You don’t want to hurt him because you care about him.”
This helped them understand their characters better. They were doing a two-minute scene. They practiced for me to see and their performance was much better than before. They went to their class and later the young man saw me and told me they had gotten an A for their performance. He also told me they had told their professor about me.
Their professor was a woman and mother and she was working at the college to help pay for her daughter’s tuition. She had worked on an off Broadway. She told me I was unlike any writer she’d ever met. When I asked her why, she said, “Most writers I know don’t understand anything about acting, nor do they care. Worse yet, they would never help a couple of young actors with their characters out of kindness. They would much rather laugh at them while they failed.”
I never would have thought about not helping somebody with their acting, with understanding their characters. Acting is very similar to writing. You have find that bit of the character, as an actor, that piece that you can relate to. And as a writer, you have to piece your characters together with little bits of other people and their feelings and you must have empathy for your characters, good or bad, to bring them to life.
You cannot base your characters on living people without their permission. They can sue if you do that. But you can take bits and pieces of different people and jumble them together, making new characters, sort like how Dr. Frankenstein made his monster.
Bits and pieces, here a little and there a little. That’s how you build believable characters.
See you out there.