When I was in 7th grade, my parents sent me to drama class because I was one of those shy-at-school kids whose teachers were always asking to speak UP. As a reader of Noel Streatfeild’s SHOES books, a copious watcher of all sorts of MGM musicals, and along with my best friends, producer/director/star of various homemade “shows” for our parents, I was also one of those shy kids who hoped to be “discovered”.
I was adolescently mortified and terrible at acting for a long time. Then I got a little better, partly out of pride, partly because it was so much fun, and partly because I came to understand the importance of taking risks as a performer, of getting inside — not so much to ‘lose myself’, but to connect — with fellow performers, with the audience, with myself. I also began writing more monologues and plays, and learned to pay attention to the ways that dialogue and movement could be just as expressive as description or narrative. Years later, when a children’s author and mentor spoke of the benefit of acting classes for writers, I was all YES.
Character development is at the heart of my writing, and I may start with specific, identifying details: physical characteristics, making lists of goals, favourites, dislikes, etc. I spend a lot of time thinking about and living with my characters before I start writing “the story.” (Maybe too much time, actually. I should probably get on with it a bit sooner than I do.) I go into intangibles and alternate circumstances: what if X happened, how would my character react? What if this thing that just happened to me happened to X–how would they have responded differently? When I’m out in public and see or overhear something mundane or extraordinary, I wonder — Ooh, how would my character handle that? Even if this stuff doesn’t make it into the actual story, it gives me a deeper understanding of my characters. I think that even in the more plot-based stories, full-bodied, vivid characterization makes a story memorable, richer, and real. Employing stage and screen techniques and strategies can enhance personality and voice, and I’d like to share a few of the tips and techniques I’ve learned over the years, and that I think will work well with some of the things already discussed here in Kidlit Summer School.
GO FOR THE RATINGS
The first is the well-known character interview technique, taken a bit further. Really do the interview. Give the questions to a trusted friend or critique partner who will be the Oprah and you take on the role of your character. And go beyond the “What’s your favourite colour, what does your room look like, etc.” questions, and tackle questions like
Tell me about the moment you knew that this (story “problem”, character need, etc.) was what you had to do?
What do you love about yourself?
What do you wish you could change about yourself?
What’s the one thing you wish you could change in your life?
What are you afraid of?
Where do you love to be?
Describe the person/living thing/object you’re closest to in your family. What do you do together? Tell me about your biggest fight.
Why did you and your (enemy/nemesis/antagonist. etc.) start growing apart? What do you wish they would do to repair the relationship?
You get the idea. You can record this interview, and later take note of the gestures, postures, vocal inflections, etc. that you use when you are in character, and think about why.
WRITE A SCENE
Sometimes we can confuse characteristics with the development of full-bodied characters. You know, you make one of those lists and decide that your character has a facial tic, a messy room, and loves cheese. That’s great, but who is she? Let’s think in terms of stage and screen, and break that down a little more. When does that tic become pronounced? What is she doing? Where is she? Who is she with? How does she try to ignore/disguise/emphasize it? What do others say or do about it — or how do they interACT? Try writing these scenes using a screenplay or play format. Writing this way can help you think more about your characters’ dialogue and physicality.
I do the same thing with students in a character+emotion exercise. I also love to have students do a mix and match exercise where we take their characters and throw out different emotions — “Write a scene where she’s really angry!” “Frustrated!” “Ecstatic!” Then we throw in different settings and it can get really crazy — “She’s frustrated in the middle of the ocean!” Again, write a film or stage script — then revise after you’ve tried to act it out. Back to that messy room. Pretend you’re a camera operator panning across it and ZOOM IN. What gets a close-up? If you were shooting a flashback scene, how did that room get messy?
You can find an example of the format here: http://www.oscars.org/awards/nicholl/scriptsample.pdf
The classic SCREENPLAY by Syd Field is also a great primer for this type of writing exercise.
“READ” LIKE A WRITER
I live in a city where there are plenty of opportunities for free theater, and I try to take advantage of that, especially during the summer. Whenever you see a play or watch a film or show, spend a little time “reading like a writer” and look at the things that performers do to bring their characters to life, through words, gestures, facial expressions – the way the performers show without telling, and take notes. Take special note of the “extras” or performers with smaller roles and the things they do to convey emotion, etc.
PUT ON A SHOW
And finally, get on stage yourself! Literally take a walk in a character’s shoes. Take an acting class, join a community theatre group, or just create one with other writers yourself — how much fun could that be? This is one time that “going through the motions” can be a wonderful thing.
RESPECT FOR ACTING, by Uta Hagen. The first few chapters are very helpful, particularly on the ideas of identification, substitution, and emotional memory.
Alexandra Sokoloff’s blog and “Screenwriting Tricks for Authors”, which is chock-full of helpful info, including posts like these:
Matt Bird’s Cockeyed Caravan, a mostly film blog; you can look at all of the posts on creating compelling characters:
Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich is often asked about her name; she is the daughter of a Nigerian father and a Jamaican mother, and married to a man of Croatian descent. She’s the author of 8th GRADE SUPERZERO (Scholastic, 2010) and contributed to OPEN MIC: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices (Candlewick, 2013), BREAK THESE RULES: 35 YA Authors on Speaking Up, Standing Out, and Being Yourself (Chicago Review Press, 2013), and IMAGINE IT BETTER: Visions of What School Might Be (Heinemann, 2014), along with other works. She has also worked as a literacy educator, youth group leader, educational consultant, publicist, and freelance writer, and is a member of PEN, SCBWI, and on the Advisory Board of Epic Change. Olugbemisola lives with her family in New York, where she loves to cook, bake, sew, knit, and make a mess with just about any craft form. Please visit her Web site at http://www.olugbemisolabooks.com.
Olugbemisola is giving away a first chapter critique! To be eligible to win, just comment on this post before the end of #KidlitSummerSchool.
And check out the Exercise Book for Gbemi’s tips on interviewing techniques!
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