Getting To Know Your Characters (Part 1)

by Gary A. Braunbeck

I’ve been very lucky in that readers and many of my fellow writers feel I have a certain skill for creating three-dimensional characters. I’m often asked how I manage to do this, so I thought for my next few columns here, I’d go over some of the methods I employ for characterization. Please bear in mind that these methods are those which work best for me and are not being offered as absolutes or — God forbid — a template that will guarantee you’ll get the same results. There is no such template; creating a multi-layered, believable, sympathetic character is, like everything else one learns about writing, a matter of trial and error.

Before getting any further into this, I need to give you a little personal background so you’ll see how I arrived at these particular methods.

For the better part of a decade — between the ages of 19 and 30 — I worked as an actor, mostly summer stock and dinner theatre, but I actually got paid to pretend I was someone else. During those years, I worked with an assortment of other actors, all of whom had their own approach to interpreting the particular role in which they were cast.

The late Laurence Olivier was a self-proclaimed “technical” actor — he worked from the outside in; he would find a walk, a speech pattern, various mannerisms, etc. through which the character would reveal itself to him. While rehearsing a Noel Coward play in which he played a prissy English lord, Olivier was having great difficulty getting a handle on both the character and how to play him. This semi-famous story reached its happy ending when Olivier, passing by an antique store, happened to glance in the window and see a walking stick for sale. He went in to the store, picked up the walking stick, and the moment it was in his hand, he knew the character. (The walking stick, by the way, was described by Olivier as “…one of the ugliest, most ostentatious things…” he’d ever seen, but knew that his character would think it was classy and tasteful.)

I worked with a lot of technical actors. I was one myself.

I also worked with a lot of Method actors. Method actors are an ongoing gift to the world from Constantin Sergeyevich Stanislavsky, an actor, writer, and director from Moscow who created an approach that forefronted the psychological and emotional aspects of acting. The Stanislavsky System, or “the Method.”

Without boring you into a coma, I’ll try to simplify what “the Method” is. It requires that, if an actor is to portray fear, he must remember something that terrified him and use that remembered fear to instill reality and credibility into his performance. The same with joy, lust, anger, confusion, etc. Stanislavsky’s Method also requires that the actor know everything about the his or her character, usually by having the actor write a short “inner history” for their character, past details of their lives that — while never used on stage — would nonetheless give the performance even deeper authenticity.

In theory, Stanislavsky’s Method is an amazing tool for an actor. It requires the complete submersion of the self into the body, psyche, and thoughts of another person so that an actor’s performance rings of the truth.

I use the phrase “in theory” above because, in my opinion, too many actors use Stanislavsky’s Method as an excuse for self-indulgence masking itself as research. Don’t misunderstand — when you get a Method actor like Marlon Brando (in his prime), Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Sean Penn, Gregory Peck, Johnny Depp, Lance Henriksen, or Bob Hoskins (to name a small handful) who have the discipline and wherewithal to employ the Method to all its power, and you can have something glorious.

But I didn’t get to work with any of them. I got to work with Method actors who would spend weeks researching and writing their “inner history”, demand that I address them only as their character (even when off stage), and never, never make light of anything at any time.

The prime example of how Stanislavsky’s Method can be turned into rampant silliness happened when I was doing a stage production of Sherlock Holmes and had to do several scenes with the actor playing Dr. Watson. (I played a slimy little safecracker named Sidney Prince.) The actor playing Watson had written a 25-page “inner history” for Watson, researched hand-to-hand combat methods used by British troops during the Boar War, studied medical procedures practiced in London in the 1800s … and when the curtain rose each night, audiences were treated to his imitation of Nigel Bruce for two-and-a-half hours.

But that’s not the silly part. The silly part always happened off stage, right before the third scene of the second act (where Watson confronts Prince). As he and I waited for our cues, the actor playing Watson would drink a cup of vinegar. I asked him why, and this, word for word, was his reply: “Because, Mr. Prince, dealing with you leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”

Time to run, not walk, to the nearest exit.

I finally came to the conclusion that for me, as an actor, Stanislavsky’s Method was useless. Every Method actor I had worked with wound up giving stiff, overly-mannered, obvious performances (in that it was obvious they were “acting”). I don’t know that I’ll ever do theatre again, but if I do, I’ll use the same “technical” approach that I always used.

But I came to realize that, while Stanislavsky’s Method might be useless to me as an actor, it was priceless to me as a writer. I still approach characterization — especially during the early stages of a story or novel — from a technical starting point, but almost always fall back on Stanislavsky’s Method when it comes time to add emotional depth and authenticity to whichever character is coming to life on the page — and I won’t commit a single word to the page until said character is someone I recognize as an old friend.

I always start with two simple questions, questions that are going to strike you as being a bit silly on the surface, but questions that, for me, reveal so much more than what is simply seen; for the purpose of this column, let’s say those two questions are these: How does this character put on his or her coat? and How much milk do they use when having a bowl of cereal?

Since this is already running a bit long, I’ll address the second question, and we’ll get to the coats next time.

Let’s say that this particular character uses just enough milk to barely cover the cereal, thus ensuring that both milk and cereal will be finished at the same time with nothing left in the bowl but the spoon. That’s the technical starting point, the outside. Now, let’s go in and look a little closer. They do this because they don’t believe in waste; they’re not the type to dump the last bit of milk down the sink after the cereal is gone. (And if there is any milk remaining, they either lift the bowl and drink it, or set the bowl on the floor so the cat can finish it.)

Why do they not believe in waste? Because they can’t afford to be wasteful. They work long hours at a job that manages to pay the bills, the rent, and buy a set amount of groceries each week. But no excesses, no luxuries, ergo, no wasting of the milk. This also suggests that this character may not be the happiest person you’ve ever met; after all, if they have to be this frugal with milk, then that frugality has to extend to every other aspect of their existence, as well, and with that comes an endless string of commonplace worries that, taken individually, may not seem like much, but cumulatively drain a lot of enjoyment from life.

This character is sitting at a kitchen table that also doubles as the dinner table, because he or she lives in a 3- or 4-room apartment; a nice-enough place that’s affordable if not fancy. I’m willing to bet that stashed up in one of the kitchen cupboards is a set of china cups and saucers left to them by a dead relative, cups and saucers that they only use on special occasions, like those rare instances they have company. I’ll also bet you that on this character’s chest of drawers in the bedroom we’ll find a jar filled two-thirds of the way with an assortment of spare change — mostly pennies, dimes, and some quarters — that this character is planning on using to buy themselves a nice little something-or-other once the jar is full, maybe a new pair of dress shoes at Target or K-mart.

I could keep going but I think you’ve got the idea. All of this from simply looking into their cereal bowl to see how much milk they used. And it doesn’t matter a damn whether or not any of the information from the above paragraph makes it into the story because I am now well on the road to knowing this person; and the better I know them, the more authentic and believable they will be to the reader, and we will have achieved what Stanislavsky’s Method demands: complete, unflinching, undistilled truth when depicting the human condition of the character in question.

Next time, the coats. In the meantime, you might want to think about what we might find in the pockets….

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