Method Writing

Last night I read a manuscript – not even a client’s, mind you – that made me cry. Well OK, technically I just teared up a little, but still! It was so true to life that I ended up empathizing with the character as if she were a real life friend. Or, more accurately, a real life “me.” It actually inspired me to return to my nonfiction roots and expand an old personal essay.

This made me wonder if the author had experienced her character’s ordeal as well. How many of you fiction writers become your characters by infusing real life emotions in your work? Are you a Marlon Brando and Daniel Day Lewis when you write? Or are you Cary Grant and Tom Hanks?

Personally, I think I’m a Cary Grant, or a “non-method” writer. (Note: I am in love with Cary Grant, but this is not why I chose him as my writing-equivalent.) Cary and Tom are both great actors (or, were, in Cary’s case); they say their lines, become a character when they need to get the job done, and go home at the end of the day as if they spent it in a cubicle. (Presumably.. obviously I have no idea how they’d go home at the end of the day after a shoot.) This is my approach to writing – to writing fiction, at least. It’s something I’m enjoying at the moment, but personal essays are, at least I’d like to think, what define me as a writer.

Method actors put their entire beings into a character, and in turn, the character fuses into them. There’s obviously great value in this type of writing too. Some might argue there’s more value. Both approaches work in acting, usually with the same results depending on how good you are (I mean, look at Tom Hanks). So, I wonder… is the same true for writing?

What are your approaches to writing fictional emotions? Do you think it matters whether an author experienced them in real life?

16 thoughts on “Method Writing

  1. I think it all goes back to what gets the job done. If you're truly writing from experience, you'll likely blend with the character without trying particularly hard. I don't think a writer or actor needs to torture themselves to write tortured characters (and, speaking as a theatre graduate, it's a little silly to watch an actor “prepare” by putting themselves through hell. More often than not the result is terrible, and only one time out of a hundred will an actor improve through this “method.”)Personally, I think it's hard to NOT absorb one or two of your main characters once you've spent enough time writing their lives. Four drafts and several sleepless nights is all the “method acting” I need as a writer 🙂


  2. When writing, and it doesn't take long once the characters and their histories are created, that they and their world becomes as real to me as my non-writing world. I do not hear or smell anything when I am writing. Hence, after a couple of years of burning up kettles and so forth, I now own a lot of appliances that shut themselves off!


  3. There's an old story from the world of acting — older, even, than some of the late Tony Curtis' wigs — about a conversation reputed to have taken place between Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier during the filming of Marathon Man.

    Hoffman, the staunch method guy, had deprived himself of worldly comforts to get a feel for his role (at one stage contemplating drilling holes in his own teeth with a screwdriver and strapping himself to a variety of dentists' furniture while under considerable mental duress).

    Olivier, meanwhile, had merely learned his lines and seemed to be spending most of his time between shoots shopping for slippers.

    So Hoffman says, “what gives? How do you get to be so convincing?”

    Olivier replies, “it's called acting dear boy.”

    Almost certainly, this never happened, and almost certainly, it wasn't slippers Olivier went shopping for, but it illustrates the point that you don't have to chop your own arms and legs off to write The Adventures Of Skateboard-propelled Larva Boy.

    On the flip side, hard personal experience can go along way when dissolved in the medium of fiction. Somehow, it retains its potency while being capable of changing flavour.


  4. I'm not a method writer, and sometimes I wonder if I should be – if I'm somehow holding back from completely immersing myself in my writing. But part of me does not want to go there. I like to “come home” at the end of the day and do other things, get to bed at a reasonable hour. I have animals who need me to feed them at five o'clock in the evening. I wonder if I had no other responsibilities if I would be able to lose myself in writing…I don't think so. Not without losing my sanity!


  5. I don't know, really. I think most writers are a little bit method, a little bit Cary Grant. My first instinct was to say that I'm able to put my characters' emotional baggage aside once I shut the lid of my laptop, but I don't know that this is always true. I've written some scenes that were pretty tough for me emotionally, and that definitely colored my outlook for the rest of the day.

    Come to think of it, this might actually be the reason why most of my fiction is basically upbeat–I don't like that drained feeling I sometimes get when writing really sad scenes.


  6. I don't think there's such a thing as a 'fictional emotion'. All emotions are real. I believe that there is a vast range of human emotion, and being human, we have all, to some extent, experienced the entire range – though perhaps to greater or lesser degrees. If we hadn't, we wouldn't be able to identify with the characters we read about. However, I don't think we need to have experienced a certain event in order to write about it – eg. we don't need to have committed suicide to write about a character who does.


  7. I think it certainly helps if you've experienced that emotion at some point in your lifetime, but as long you can put yourself in that character's shoes as your writing and experience the emotions with them, that's what counts. I've teared up as I write sad scenes, or laughed at silly parts as I write them and I'd like to think that the reader can feel that.


  8. Great post! I'd like to say I'm like Daniel Day Lewis because I think he's an amazing actor who makes interesting role choices…however, I'm just not that intense of a person.

    I LOVE writing, and I love hearing the dialogue and discussion my characters have, then writing it all down. But they're not MY characters–they belong to the story. Does that make sense? I definitely try to get to know them and where they're coming from, but at the end of the day, I'm not walking around trying to become the character in order to be a better writer. I don't believe that I need to have experienced a dead parent in order to write from an orphan's perspective. What I DO need to do, is respect the character enough to do some serious research and thinking. Writers use their imaginations to make their worlds convincing, just like actors. I'm guessing that even Tom Hanks does a little bit of reading/interviewing to get to know his roles.

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking post 🙂


  9. I think it matters whether you experienced or not, but I don't think you need to experience every feeling you write about in order to show it effectively.

    The biggest difference might be confidence. If you've experienced this feeling firsthand, you might be more bold in how you describe it. You might show the character's thoughts more closely or intensely, because you don't have to rely on research and hope it's accurate. It's true to your life, so of course it's right.

    I think empathy is the key to writing good characters, though. If you have (a fair amount of) it, you don't need to experience everything your character experiences to try to humanize their emotions. But I think having been through it yourself CAN make it more personal, and make your writing more bold.


  10. Just gotta say Cary Grant is one of my favorite actors. What a stud. And he's one of the luckiest men alive (or dead), seeing he starred in a movie with Grace Kelly. Lucky sucker.
    Great post, Sarah. Thank you.


  11. Since I both write (pretty well) and act (badly), I definitely see characterization and acting as essentially the same thing, and I approach them the same way. I'm not one for methoding, but I think that there has to be something in the character that you can relate to on some level or another for it to work out. If you can't find that one thing that you can draw on personally, in big or small ways, then the character comes out flat and the performance doesn't go over well (or in my case, worse than usual).


  12. I don't think that you need to have done something to write about it. Writers have a keen ability to step into someone else's shoes and put those experiences on paper.

    The range of human emotions boils down to things that we have all felt at one time or another, the only thing that varies is the intensity of those emotions.


  13. Ooh, this was a great post–one that I really have to think about. Hmm, I think while I'm writing a manuscript, I become so immersed with the characters and their drama that I become part of their world. Yes, I'm that weird writer who laughs and/or giggles when they write sometimes. But I'm able to shake them off a few days later and become ordinary Pam again. Maybe I'm a combo–Daniel Day Hanks perhaps?


  14. What an excellent question! For me, it depends on the character. When I'm in love with my character, head over heels in love, then I can relate to that character better. It doesn't matter if the characters is “good” or “bad”, guy or girl, young or old, etc. If the character “speaks” to me, then I can put the emotions and experiences on the page as if I had gone through it myself. For example, if my heroine is facing something that I never have before, I can still bring those emotions through because I am in touch with her. I know what she feels and how she'd react, even if I never had that experience before.


  15. I was in a drive-thru last week brainstorming a character. Getting into his head. He's a cocky SOB, and so it made sense that 5 minutes later when I got pulled over by a police officer I was completely unremorseful and annoyed. Some small voice in my head was shouting, “Be more sorry! He might let you off!” But I couldn't snap out of it.

    In my defense, it was a retarded ticket.

    I think it can be more effective when an author hasn't experienced the trauma he/she is writing about. He/she can maintain a narrative distance, focus on things like pacing and organization, without getting lost in the emotion.


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