Writing fiction is a lot like acting. It may be strange to consider, but some of the greatest lessons I’ve taken to heart about writing in character have come from famous actors and actresses—more specifically, from the remarks and experiences they commonly share in interviews and behind-the-scenes featurettes. It’s a good idea to listen to the sorts of stories they tell, how they get into character and how they research their roles.
Because as writers, we have to do exactly the same things. And we don’t have to just throw ourselves into one part—we have to throw ourselves into all of the parts. We have to figure out the voice, thoughts, backstories, motivations, and mannerisms of every character in our stories. We have to throw these characters together and let them interact with each other. Indeed, every novel I’ve ever written is the literary equivalent of a one-man show.
This is relevant to almost all writing forms, but to one in particular: ghostwriting. The challenge of a ghostwriter is to disappear completely into another person’s headspace, and from there, into their voice. They are hired as a third party to write the first-person experiences of their client. Understandably, this can be a tricky process.
But it’s something Hollywood actors have been doing very well for decades. Actors are often called upon to play real-world characters, often while their subjects are still alive. When Julia Roberts played Erin Brockovich in 2000, she had an actual person to carefully study to find her performance. Ditto for Jamie Foxx playing Ray Charles. (It’s worth noting that both of these performances won Academy Awards.)
How is it done? Here’s a quick lesson, in three steps, to take to heart.
This is such a common piece of advice, in so many different arenas, that it’s basically a cliché. But really, how can you pay attention to the intricacies of another person’s behavior without listening to them—and not just hearing their words, but hearing what’s behind them? It’s important to shut down our always-working writer brains for a time to just hear what’s going on with the other person, whether that person is a real-life subject or a fictional voice in your imagination.
This takes it a step further. It’s not only critical to listen to others, but to feel what they are feeling. There are a host of behavioural cues that betray the true feelings behind a person’s words and actions: their tone of voice, facial expression, and body posture. Getting in tune with another person’s feelings will create in you exactly the kind of intuitive emotional intelligence that will result in strong—and hopefully realistic and compelling—characterization.
Once you’ve taken stock of a characters words, tone of voice, facial expression, body posture, and cumulative emotions, as a writer you pour out all those details into a full fleshed-out depiction. An actor actually portrays all these points of characterization by using their own body; writers, possessing the same emotional intelligence, use language. The end result should be a similarly affecting portrayal.
I’ve used the example of ghostwriting and taking on real-world personas, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter whether your character is real or fictional. The same process applies.
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.