Getting into Character

When I was in high school and college, I took some drama classes and acted in a bunch of plays.  I always enjoyed being part of a cast and performing on stage, and I liked the exercise of attempting to become a character—figuring out her relationships with other people, her formative experiences, her motivation onstage, and her quirks.

The thing is, though, I could analyze the characters I played and imagine all these things about them, but I don’t think I was ever really able to inhabit them.  On stage, I was either too aware of the need to remember all that important character work I’d done, or else I was too aware of myself—what my next line was, what gesture I was going to use, and how much the audience had or had not laughed at my last line.  When I stop and think about it now, acting starts to seem pretty much impossible: you want to be in the moment and be your character, but you can’t lose yourself completely in the moment or character because you have lines to deliver and blocking instructions to follow.

Writing poses a similar challenge.  Writers have to maintain a sense of story structure, pacing, and urgency within scenes.  But at the same time, as Ursula K. LeGuin points out
in her excellent book Steering the Craft, writers also have to inhabit their characters.  LeGuin explains, “Writers must do what a serious actor does, sinking self in character-self.  It’s a willingness to be the characters, letting what they think and say rise from inside them.  It’s a willingness to share control with one’s creation” (121).

Not an easy thing to do under any circumstances, but sinking into character-self feels especially challenging when you’re squeezing in an hour of writing early in the morning or at the end of an energy-zapping day.  I’ve heard some writers say that they hear their characters speaking to them and just write down what the characters say.  That must be convenient.  But if your character doesn’t whisper in your ear as you’re sitting in front of the computer with forty-four minutes until you really, really have to get in the shower if you’re going to get to work on time, then what?

I don’t entirely know.  At this point in my revising process, I’ve figured out the important information about my characters; I just need a way to access their personas and briefly step out of my own.  Some people make playlists or collages to get into the mindset of their characters.  That hasn’t worked for me yet, but it could be worth another try.  Mary Quattlebaum, one of my advisors at Vermont College of Fine Arts, showed me how to do brief meditations to ground myself in a scene before writing.  That definitely helps, but sometimes I end up picturing myself in the scene and imagining how I’d react instead of reacting as my main character.

One other thing that’s been helping me lately is thinking my characters’ controlling beliefs.  I first heard the term controlling belief from Kathi Appelt during my first workshop at Vermont College. Kathi also talked about controlling beliefs on Thorough the Tollbooth, and she defines a controlling belief as “the belief or attitude that is so tightly ingrained in the character…that it shades every action and every response.”  A controlling belief acts as an engine that drives the character, but it might not be logical or true.  A character’s belief could be that he is not as smart as his brother, for example, or that if he works hard he will succeed no matter what.  Before the end of a book, the character sometimes reaches a crisis of faith, during which she has to examine the validity of her controlling belief.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about my protagonist’s controlling belief as well as a related concept: what another of my Vermont College advisors, Franny Billingsley, would call my character’s “vacuum.”  A character’s vacuum is basically what she longs for but doesn’t have—something inside her that feels empty and calls out to be filled.  I’ve figured out the controlling belief and vacuum for the other central characters in my book, also, and I keep them taped to the bottom of the shelves above my desk.  Often, looking at these statements of controlling beliefs and vacuums helps me to sink into my characters and be more present in the scenes I am trying to write.

What works for you?  How do you get into character as you write, or what are some books in which the characters’ voices are especially distinct and consistent, so they authors seem to have done an exceptional job of sinking into character-self?

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