Tami Lewis Brown lives in one of the oldest houses in Washington, DC. It is (mostly) ghost-free. She escaped from a career as a trial lawyer to obtain an MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. And she’s the author of the forthcoming RADIANT MAN along with SOAR, ELINOR! and THE MAP OF ME, all published by Farrar Straus and Giroux Books for Young Reader.

Here in the Tollbooth we revere character driven novels. Sure plot’s great (essential, even) but compelling characters draw us into the books we love. More important, crafting full, lifelike characters is what helps us soldier on, revision after endlesss revision. But how do you create a real person from ink and paper? Books like Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel have exercises to help discover and deepen character, but this summer I’m relying on a different method- taking cues from the acting world and re-reading this book-

A CHALLENGE FOR THE ACTOR.A CHALLENGE FOR THE ACTOR
by Uta Hagen
Scribner, 1991

First, let me say this- I may be a drama queen but I have no acting background. I haven’t been in a play since high school, and even then my stage presence was… less than promising. So approaching writing from an acting perspective wasn’t necessarily my first impulse. But after reading A Challenge for the Actor, Hagen’s ideas about understanding and conveying character are so spot on I can’t imagine sticking to artificial character charts or writing exercises to breath life into my characters. Her acting theories are as applicable to the page as they are to the stage.
Uta Hagen was a renowned stage actress and drama coach. She approached acting personally, infusing her own experiences and emotions into her roles. Also known as “method acting” or “the Stanislavski method” (actually there are some distinctions between her approach and theirs, but those differences aren’t important for our purposes) Hagen instructed her students to live inside their character’s skins and adapt their own personal physical and emotional conditions to make their character’s actions and reactions authentic.
Your character has lost her dog? Think back to the time your boyfriend left you and mine those emotions on your page. Experience it physically, all the way into your heart. Cry about it and let those tears soak through your work.
Genuinely immersing yourself in your character is difficult and can be uncomfortable. Who wants to experience sorrow, despair, or longing with their protagonist? An actor, or writer who wants to create the most real, visceral experience possible.
Getting there isn’t easy, but Uta Hagen hands us a road map.
This summer I’m plunging into the emotional depths of two novels with two very different, very troubled protagonists. I’m ready to go on those journeys. Jumbo box of Kleenex and A Challenge For The Actor close at hand.

Tami Brown

 

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