When the Dog Bites: An Actor’s Perspective on Character Development

Writing is one of my favorite things, but I confess that I have another favorite thing. Yes, it is true that my major in college was communications (let’s call it the more practical side of my personality). However, I admit, acting is my other favorite thing (let’s call it the more hopelessly romantic, adventurous part of my personality). From playing the wicked queen in Snow White in elementary school, to writing, designing the set, and directing a neighborhood rendition of Cinderella before my first year in junior high, to playing crazy Aunt Abby in Arsenic and Old Lace in high school, to having a one-liner in a student film in college, I think you could say I love acting. My minor in college was...you guessed it...theater studies

Now, before you click on to another blog about writing, let me tell you how helpful an actor’s perspective is on writing characters! In fact, I’d venture to say that a good writer will go through some of the same processes an actor does when preparing to perform.

I came across this great quote by Robert Frost recently:

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

There are many different acting methods out there, but basically an actor has the job to use themselves to portray a character that may be entirely different from themselves. That is where acting comes in (& what I love so much!)…an actor must build a bridge between their own experience and that of the character they are playing. A good actor can take their own experiences, which might not be as dramatic as that of the character they are portraying, and use them to help the character emerge.

For example, let’s say I am to act in the role of a character who is bit on the nose by a wild, rabid dog. Don’t worry. I haven’t actually contracted rabies from a dog that bit my nose. However, what I have experienced is having my top lip swollen three times its normal size and hurting like crazy because I got stung by a bee (well I guess more accurately, a wasp). If I am to bring across to my audience the correct physical and emotional response of being attacked by a rabid dog, I could probably use the feelings from my experience with the wasp as a good substitute. I won’t actually be thinking on stage ‘I have been bitten by a bee! Ow!,’ but rather I will remember physical pain and terror (which I recalled from the experience with the bee). I can then magnify that essence of terror and pain onstage in the situation with the rabid dog. Make sense?

In writing my book, I am imagining up a bunch of different characters who have experiences that I as the writer probably haven’t experienced or may not relate to at all. However, I have had an array of experiences in my life. While writing, I can think of those experiences with their accompanying emotional, physical, mental thought processes and transfer them into the experiences of the experiences of my characters. In writing my book, I've done that (putting myself in a character’s situation to write a true reaction) already without actually analyzing it. Until now. 

As a writer, we can step into the lives of the characters and write a true response by drawing on the essence of our own experience…Dog bites. Bee stings. Feeling sad, etc…This helps our characters become real.

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