Thursday, March 31, 2011

What Acting Taught Me About Writing

Some say that writers see the world differently, which I think is a little misleading. It implies that a writer was born with some insight, some secret view to the world that readers of the world don’t share.

Then again, I agree with the saying because I think that the more you seek to write well, the more changed you become. And as you seek to grow in writing, you are forced to look at things differently.

A writing lesson I’m glad to continuously relearn is one I first learned when I had dreams of Broadway. Yes, once upon a time I liked to act. And like most people, initially I sucked at acting. My instructors always casted me way against my type, and my performances were always more than a little stilted until I learned one huge lesson:

You can’t portray someone if you’re judging them.

If you don’t accept your character’s motives and project them, no one will believe your acting from fifty rows back. To get on stage or in front of a camera and really make people believe you are someone, you have remove your judgments on who you think they should be, and just let them be. You are the canvas. They are the paint. And for that time you are portraying that character, everyone should sense their motivations and goals through you with absolutely no apology for them.

That’s acting.

The same goes for writing a character: If you judge the character, you can’t write him/her well.

Then again, if you don’t judge the character and proactively filter out some of their less redeeming qualities to make them more palatable, people may judge you. To understand that possibility and write their story anyway? That takes guts.

After all, most readers assume that books and characters are autobiographical. If your character does something, readers will assume you have, too. And how many writers have readers come up and tell them, “I pictured you as the main character the whole time”?

People judge you based on what you write. It’s an undeniable fact. So it only makes sense for an author to pre-judge characters to make sure they pass the snuff of representing them on paper before digging into the commitment of writing on the character’s behalf.

Back to the point of those who say writers see the world differently, it does take a rare person to tell the story of someone they disagree with—to look into a soul and see why it is the way it is to such a level that everyone who reads what is told from that character’s perspective assumes the author is similarly minded.

Just like an actor has to go on stage and represent their character like the true hero of the script—even if they’re the "bad guy"—a story rises in its potential when the author lets a character walk and talk and think authentically, with no judgment from the teller of their story.

Moving into a judgment-free zone is not a task for all writers (or actors, really). Some have no aspirations to do this at all. They are content to portray people like them as the good guys and people they cannot relate to as two-dimensional bad guys. This requires little imagination and no growth for either the reader or the writer.

But to those out there looking to see the world a little differently, I have this challenge: If you wish to grow in the craft, write about someone you don’t understand. Tell their story—even if you never choose show it to a soul. Don’t apologize for the character’s behavior, but seek the why of it. Make every character a hero in their own eyes, define how their goals influence their actions. Are the bad guy’s goals really any different than your hero’s? In the end, do they really want the same thing? Opposite things? If opposite, why?

It’s an amazing and fascinating process. And after a person does this a few times—any person—I really do believe they begin to see the world differently.


  1. It is interesting how choosing to see the point of view of someone which whom you disagree can help you. I am not a writer (while I desire to be one, I can't seem to get beyond one page typed...I just don't have the ideas to keep going...Maybe some day) but I remember back to my highschool days. I was not a great actress, but our ward youth put on the musical L'il Abner (cleaned up to be youth program appropriate). As I was a decent singer, I was chosen to play the part of Daisy Mae half the time and another part (the ditsy secretary part) the other half. (the other actress chosen was a better actress, but I was the better singer). At first I thought I would do much butter at Daisy Mae because she was much more similar to myself. In the end, stepping out of myself and portraying a character that was so completely different than myself ended up being better for me than the main character that I thought was so much more like myself. While I was still not a great actress, I think I became a little better through the experience.

  2. Ok, I really should proofread my own comments, please ignore wrong word choices ;) they were all accidental!

  3. It's all good, girl. It's the thoughts that count, and they're great. And true. Sometimes the hardest people to play are the people most like ourselves, because we bring our personal judgments to the table as well and try to hide them in our portrayal. That's just as noticeable, I think :)

  4. I think you are right. It ended up being much harder to portray someone like myself. (then again, that was the beginning and end of my acting I do not have much experience to draw upon). I think the process of separating yourself from the character gives you the freedom to be better.

  5. The part I loved to think about was what you wrote about everyone seeing themselves as the hero. When making sense of the world I find myself coming back to that idea in a lot of different ways. It makes the discussion about good and evil so much more interesting. What does that mean when you really DO understand the causes and conditions that have shaped the thinking of the worlds worst villains? Is that seeing them like God would? Would it be possible to really judge someone who has started with certain in-born programming and had their thinking shaped by specific experiences beyond their control? We may all agree that their actions are truly sinister but you still have to sympathize with the way the cards played out for them when they were just trying to find what would provide them the most fulfillment. Everyone can become a victim no matter how many wicked things they have done. It's fascinating.

  6. This was Chris by the way....Forgot to log out :)

  7. It IS fascinating, Chris. I'm so with you there. I still remember the moment in my teens when I realized that people I thought were "bad" wanted to be seen as good. Talk about mental vertigo.

    Since "bad" is based on the values of the person judging, it's completely subjective. But the scientist who systemically kills animals in the search to help humanity may consider himself a hero, just as someone else with different values is tempted to shoot the scientist on sight for his crimes against animals. The abortion doctor sees himself as helping, while another sees him as a killer. Secular documents telling the other side of biblical stories portray actions of prophets/leaders as genocide, while religious followers call the same people elect, faithful men of God.

    Who's right? Everyone? No one?

    Perspective. There is no underestimating the power of it. That's the only thing I'm fairly certain of in the whole equation...