You know those infamous portals to another world in almost every fantasy book? Well, that’s what a good story is for me. I don’t read a book, I live it and when I close it I have to re-enter my world. I suspect that’s true for most writers.
I was into acting in high school and college. I competed in regional and state competitions each year. One year the competitive reader’s theater I was in was based on Shel Silverstein’s book, Lafcadio the Lion Who Shot Back.
Because it’s a children’s story, a lot of audience members missed the deeply personal theme Silverstein wove into its humor and just enjoyed it for its whimsy.
But as an actor, I had to know the deeper meaning whether or not anyone else did. And I had to find a way to portray that without losing the humor. It was a tough spot because I didn’t share the same emotional genesis that Silverstein used to create his story. That’s when an actor (and a writer), has to draw from a memory bucket and find an experience that gives emotional authenticity to the character she is trying to portray.
Of course, there was another problem. I was neither a lion nor a man. Now in the competition rules for collegiate readers theaters, you can’t wear costumes. So all the lion and manliness of my character portrayal was up to me. It was kind of fun pretending I had a manly swagger and a furry mane—back in the big-hair days it wasn’t so hard.
Our coach had us perform at the local elementary schools as practice. I loved seeing all those wide eyes pulled into our story as we spun our tale. There was one little guy though who was clearly grounded in reality. When I got the line, “Am I a Man or a Lion?” He yelled out, “You’re not a man or a lion. You’re a girl!”
Fiction writers create a new world with people who exist first in our mind before they ever have a life of their own. In order to create believable characters, a writer has to put herself into the skin of the person they’re bringing to life and put that out on the writer's stage--the page.
Now there’s always a place for the one-dimensional Snidely Whiplash characters, but for the most part, writers want characters that resonate. And understanding human behavior can certainly help.
My drama teacher would tell us to go out and sit in a public place where we could watch people. Watch how they walk, talk, move, interact. How is their speech? Is it slang, proper, accented, slow, fast? How do they dress? What does their outward appearance say to you, then watch deeper.
Perhaps that’s why this video on Brain Pickings' site today (see above) resonated with me as a writer even though is was meant as an economic experiment. It shows us that we really don’t understand human motivation like we often think we do.
Very rarely are people motivated by money alone. It’s what the money gives them, be it power, fame, popularity or security. The same is true of other behaviors. There is always something behind a person's reaction and interaction. So it is with the characters we write. We need to understand them as if we had to be them.
Of course there’s always the heckler in the audience who won’t see our manly lions no matter what we do, but there’s all those 22 other little faces who will, and that’s worth all the sweat it takes to get the characters right.