Saturday, 20 September 2014


Saw this quote in the Big Issue, from actor Eddie Marsan:
Eddie Marsan: Wiki Commons

"I learned that acting's not about doing anything - it's about thinking the thoughts of the character. And listening with the same set of prejudices your character has."
          I thought that was brilliant.
        I turned it over in my mind, as you do, trying to find fault with it - and I couldn't.

A writer acting while crowds faint
        I've often thought writing was akin to acting - without the performance part most of the time, obviously. But, as a writer, you think about what your character looks like, and what they would choose to wear (supposing their situation allows them to have a choice. But even then, what they would prefer to wear, if they had a choice, says something about them.)
        You think about what they sound like. Do they chatter, or hardly speak at all? Do they speak in a low, level tone, or quickly - or nervously?
          Do they listen to others, or try to drown out anything anyone else has to say?
         What kind of words do they choose to use?  Do they avoid slang because they think it's common - or make a point of using it,  to claim identification with a certain group. Or they may simply use the language of their time and place because they don't know any other.
           What's their predominating trait? - Suspicion? Anger? Fear? Because that trait is going to govern the way they respond to situations, even if they have it well under control. - Though not necessarily in a straight-forward way. Someone who is grounded in Fear, for instance, is not necessarily going to behave timidly. They might, like an agitated, snarling dog, respond with aggression.
          Do they think things through carefully or act impulsively? Do they tend towards dithering or decisiveness?
          Above all, perhaps: What do they want? What is it they are always striving towards? - Victory? Security? Status? Love? Power?
          How is all this affected by their physicality? - I mean, can they rely on their good looks for charm, or have they had to work on their charm of manner?
          Or are they charmless, and try to intimidate, one way or another?
          Are they confident of being able to move, run, jump - or do they have to factor in that their body is not  agile or reliable?
          But once you've worked all this out, you try to bring it all together, and then step behind it and inhabit it. You try, as Marsan says, to 'think the thoughts of your character.'
          This, I think, is why I often find it helpful to have 'a model' for a character: a very clear visual image of what they look like, how they move, how they dress. Once I've worked out a character, I find I can throw this image over all the 'characteristics', and the visual image helps to pull them all together. I can then think of the image, step inside it, so to speak, and look out through its eyes.

          I don't know how much time actors spend thinking about the other characters in a play but, as a writer, once you've 'played the part' of one character, you step over into another character and do the same again.
          And, while inhabiting one character you listen to the others - as Marsan brilliantly says - 'with the same set of prejudices your character has.' - Because those prejudices will colour the understanding - or misunderstanding - of what is said by the other characters and will dictate the listening character's reaction to them.
         So then you can work out what the listening character will say or do - before you move into another character and assume their thoughts and prejudices.
          This is why, having written a scene from one point of view, I often have to take a break and go for a walk or do the washing-up before writing another. I need time to struggle out of one set of thoughts and prejudices, and struggle into another. - Costume change!
          I'm doing this quite often as I write my present WIP. It started with three points of view - one a teenage girl, the second her father, and the third his new girl-friend. Then the ex-wife suddenly spoke up and pushed her way into things.
          Before taking up each character, I have to stop and think: what does this one want? What's their attitude to life? And then I have to try and understand, see, and hear whatever's going on in the story with their mind, filtered through their prejudices.
         I'd be really interested to hear the thoughts of other writers and actors on this - and don't hang back if you've never appeared 'on the professional stage' of either profession. It's insight into the craft I'm interested in, not whether you've been paid!

Photo of Eddie Marsan File:EddieMarsan09TIFF.jpg licensed with Cc-by-sa-2.0



Joan Lennon said...

This is interesting stuff - I'm not sure I've done this as consciously as you're describing, but it makes sense!

madwippitt said...

Wot Joan says! :-)

Susan Price said...

I'm not sure I do it all that consciously, or as clearly and neatly as I've described here... but something like that. Come on - how do you come up with a character?

madwippitt said...

If I told you I'd have to set the wippitts on you and eat you ...

Joan Lennon said...

They tend to walk into my head and insist I spend time with them.