Today, West Australian author Teena Raffa‑Mulligan explains how you can get ‘in character’ to bring your stories to life.
Actors and writers
What do writers and actors have in common? More than you think. Writers create characters on the page – actors create them on stage or in films. Both actors and writers need to present convincing characters their audiences will care about, otherwise the book will remain unread or the movie will be a box office flop.
As a writer your most important role is to grab your reader’s attention from the opening lines and hold it to the final word. Every character must come to life on the page. Just as an actor portrays a character on the screen, you have to make every person in your story seem real, with a unique set of emotions, ideas, opinions and behaviours.
Taking on parts
But while an actor usually only gets to play one part in a production, a writer has to take on every part. You’re not only the star but every other character in your story as well. That might sound like a tough call but it’s actually fun. While you’re writing your stories, you can go anywhere, be anyone and do anything – in your imagination.
My tenth birthday is ancient history now and the only adventures I had as a child were imaginary ones. Yet one of the characters who keeps popping up in my stories is a boy with an inquisitive nature, lots of spirit and a lively sense of adventure. In Mad Dad For Sale, his name’s Luke McAlister and he gets so tired of being in trouble he sells his dad through an ad in the local paper. It turns out the mad professor who’s bought Dad is an alien and Luke has to turn super sleuth to find his father and save himself and his whole family before it’s too late.
My writer friends tell me I get right inside Luke’s head as if I’m a kid. I say that’s because I’m just a kid disguised as a grandma. What I actually do is think myself into the characters in my stories in the same way an actor would when preparing for a role in a movie. For the time I’m writing Luke, I’m being Luke.
You’re not only the star but every other character in your story as well.
Use your imagination
Sometimes actors go to a lot of trouble to get their performances right. Robin Williams was going to play the part of a doctor called Patch Adams. Patch believed laughter was the best medicine so he dressed up as a clown for his patients. Robin spent months before making the movie visiting sick children dressed as a clown. Another actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, lived in the wilds for six months before he made the movie The Last Mohican about a native American. For his role in another movie, Daniel Day-Lewis spent all his time in a wheelchair so he’d know what it was like.
You don’t need to go that far. In your imagination you can stop being yourself for the time you’re writing your stories and ‘be’ the various characters, exactly as an actor does.
Use first-hand accounts to colour your own stories and add a dose of reality.
When you’re watching a movie there’s no description of what’s happening. You watch the story unfold scene by scene before your eyes. If the actors are convincing in their roles and the script writer has penned believable dialogue between the characters, you get caught up in the story. You care what happens so much you find yourself sitting on the edge of your seat gnawing your fingernails because the alien’s about to suck the life juice out of the boy and you want to know how the boy will escape. Or you’re cheering out loud when the superhero saves the world with seconds to spare.
As a writer you use words to create the scenes and reveal aspects of your characters. By thinking of yourself slipping in and out of the various roles in your story you can make your writing more alive for your readers.
Remember what it was like
Writing a character younger than yourself is easy. You can remember what it was like to be three years old and scared of the dark, or an eight-year-old whose best friend is moving interstate. If you’re 15 you’ve never experienced what it is to be 25 or 75 so an older character calls on you to use your imagination and project ahead to how you think you might feel, think and behave in the future.
The power of observation
You can also use your powers of observation. You’re surrounded by people of all ages and a myriad of personalities. Become a people watcher. Pay attention. You’ll be surprised how many useful examples of human behaviour from everyday life you can draw on to develop your characters.
By thinking of yourself slipping in and out of the various roles in your story, you can make your writing more alive to the readers.
Sometimes imagination and observation aren’t enough to work with. This is where research comes into the picture. With the internet there is a wealth of information at our fingertips. Were huge crinoline skirts worn in days gone by a nuisance? How much training would someone do before climbing Mt Everest? Google it and see what you can find out.
Delve into the biographies and autobiographies of people who’ve left their mark on history. Read the letters and diaries of early pioneers or the men and women who served during both world wars. Chat with a police officer or firey. Meet a scientist. Hear what disaster survivors have to say about their experiences. You can use these first-hand accounts to colour your own stories and add a dose of reality.
So next time you’re writing a story, try being an actor as well as a writer. ‘Become’ your characters. It’s fun and your writing will improve too.
Teena Raffa-Mulligan is a West Australian author who writes tales to entertain children of all ages. Her publications include poems, short stories, picture books and novels. She has been fascinated with words since childhood and this led her into a long career as a journalist and editor.
Teena says one of the best things about being a children’s author is sharing her excitement about books and writing through talks and workshops and encouraging children and adults to write their own stories.
She has three grown-up children with families of their own who provide plenty of inspiration for new stories.