By Darlene Cah
One of the most important lessons I learned as an improv actor was to always enter a scene with an emotion. As improvisers we had no idea what the scene was about, or where it would go, who our characters were, and what they’re relationships were to each other. We figured it all out in the moment. But entering with an emotion, even if the emotion the actor chooses is completely inappropriate, in the traditional sense, for the situation, grounds the actor, allows her to find depth to the character she’s developing as the scene moves forward. Plus, it gives her something to do. Rather than just standing there, uncomfortably, trying to figure everything out, she can mime flinging food-caked dinner dishes across the kitchen, or cutting veggies and fruit to make a smoothie while breaking down into tears. Can you tell I’m obsessed with food? All of this fuming and sobbing, shivering and laughing—and improvising—transfers to writing, as well.
Stage to Page
As writers, at least we have a clear picture of our characters in place, their relationships set, scenes and locations, and storylines, if not clearly mapped, somewhat vaguely played out in our minds. I fall into the “vague” category, preferring to let the story and characters find their own way, in effect, improvising on paper (well, digital “paper”).
Feel it to Write it
So how do I create believable emotion in my characters? I become them. I get in touch with a feeling that triggers what I want my character to feel, not all-out Method acting, but enough to experience the emotion. If that emotion is fear, I might put myself in the scene and perform a task or bit of business my character might do. Does she clutch her scarf tighter around her neck? Does she hold her breath? Does she squeeze her eyes shut? Is she shivering? Sweating? Stifling an uncontrollable nervous laugh? The point is to ramp up the emotion to the level your character needs to experience and allow your character to live it, too. In fact, go over the top. It’s easier to pull back an emotion than building up a half-hearted reaction later.
On stage, you’d have another actor to play off of. When writing, you have to be that other character, as well. So it can be a bit of an emotional rollercoaster! This may scare the cats, get odd looks from the dog, or elicit giggles from family members gathered outside your office door, as they listen to your characters grunt, growl, squeal or gasp.
Choose an Attitude
The characters you’ll create aren’t the only ones fraught with emotion. What about you? How are you feeling about your story? About life? There are times when I’m frustrated, angry or sad about some circumstance in my life, and the last thing I want to do is write. On the other hand, the times I allowed those emotions to fuel my work, I’ve amazed myself. Or what if you just got a great promotion at work or you were invited to a surprise baby shower for a longtime friend you haven’t seen in awhile. Try using the mood you’re in to start a story. Does the emotion evoke a location, a sensory awareness such as a scent or color, an identifiable trait that can evolve into a fleshed out character?
I’m sure I mentioned in other posts; I come from a wacky Italian family where emotions ranged from high to melodramatic, with all the appropriate arm waving and operatic crescendo. At work, in public, and in most families, we’re taught to stifle our emotions, to put on the poker face, not to react. Most times that’s good advice. Slamming your laptop shut and telling a client exactly how you really feel is not a wise career move.
However, stories are driven by emotion and relationships. Emotion leads to characters doing really dumb things (like slamming said laptop shut, etc), and as the consequences pile up, readers make their own emotional investment. So let your feelings spill out in a sloppy, sordid, splashy mess to fire up your fiction.