It sounds like a joke, right? “Method writing,” as in writing to embody your characters so much that like a method actor, you begin to take on their characteristics, thoughts, or traits outside of the art form. Some of my very favorite actors are method actors– Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Newman, James Dean, Heath Ledger, and oh yeah, Mickey Rourke are some famous examples. I was talking to a fellow writer, and he pulled the phrase “method writer” out as if it were a joke, a preposterous notion. But I couldn’t laugh, because I have found myself guilty of method writing. I just googled the phrase before writing this post, and lo and behold–some professors actually teach this style of writing to their students.
Holy shit. While this may be a great way to dig deeper into the psyche of your characters, I do not always recommend this method of writing; especially if you happen to be writing from the P.O.V. of a serial killer or a rapist or some other kind of real-world monster. Method writing is similar to method acting in that it lingers past the process of instant art and into the everyday life. You begin to think like that character, act like him or her. It’s not for everybody, though it can benefit you with some honest character building in your fiction.
It reflects in my clothes. It reflects in what music I listen to, and my internal monologues walking down the street or driving in my car. It can consume you if you don’t know how to turn it off. I admit I’m not very good at turning it off. It helps when there are a variety of characters in your story to bounce around between.
In my first book, the voice of my novel was third person omniscient, and so I could get into everyone’s head. It was a very confident voice, but it was also dark, because my story was dark. I found myself wearing a lot of dark colors. I also donned a lot of skulls. My story had a lot of literal skeletons in it. I began to feel a little like the grim reaper. The voices in my story were from a Medieval time, and so my writing outside of my story reflected that very proper word usage, sometimes using terms that aren’t exactly modern. I began to think in terms of how everything was going to affect the world, which is what the characters in my book are concerned with. But my writing became a thousand times more method-like in my new story, which in some ways is a relief, as there aren’t any dragons or skeletons in it.
My current WIP is not a fantasy, but a YA novel set in 1993. I’ve been researching extensively to nail the era down as true to life as possible, and in doing so, I’ve tried to recreate that around me. Although I do break out of era, I have immersed myself in the culture of the period. Yes, I wear flannel, and thankfully that’s in style right now. But it goes deeper than that. My story is a first person narrative, but also I dig into the best friends of my characters, as well; especially his love interest. It’s safer to say that I am method writing her more than she is a reflection of myself. I started listening to the music she would like, studying the type of guys she would be interested in, thinking about the sort of people she would look up to, and the issues she would be against. I put together a package that is her character, and I basically put it on for size and am walking around in it. In doing this, I can see out the eyes of this person and show her emotions and motivations on the page without it ringing false.
The same goes with my protagonist, who takes a little more research, since I’m not a 17-year-old boy, nor even a male at all. I’ve been reading as much fiction from the P.O.V. of males as I can get my hands on; I ask all of my male friends questions about their experiences at that age. I watch movies and listen to the music he would like. I think about his motivations and what he wants most at this point in time in his life. Did I mention I also watch a lot of movies about that era, that were filmed in that era, or that came out right before that era? (Hmm. Note to self: What would these characters be reading?) I admit, it’s not too difficult for me to put myself into the mindset of a teenager again, even though I will have been officially 10 years removed from high school this summer. I’m kind of not into this business of “growing up,” I guess. Maturity is overrated.
Sometimes I study images of people so long, like in a photo essay or a video interview, that when I walk around, I begin to think inside the box of their person. What would they do in a situation? Why did they do this or that? How would they dress, what would they eat, and what would they do today? What would they say to that guy walking down the street?
Sometimes, I admit, I do attempt to speak to people “in character,” but I am no actor, and it usually fails because someone breaks the spell of the right-now versus the world or era my character is living in. It’s hard to dwell in the mind of a fictitious beast from Medieval times if someone asks me what I think about the latest album by Arcade Fire, for example.
Does method writing really benefit me? Well, I’d certainly like to believe I’m not crazy all for my own amusement. I feel like putting myself literally in the mindset of the characters helps transport me into that place, that time, that personality that I need to convey to readers what these people are like at their core. It’s all about connection. If I can better connect to my characters, then, the hope is, my readers will be able to better connect with my story. Unless my characters are just as stark-raving mad as I am, of course. But then again, I like to think we’re all a little bit crazy.
I’m pretty sure I’ve lost you all by this point in the blog. But that’s why I named it “South of Sanity.” You can’t say it didn’t come as advertised. So yeah, method writing. Try it sometime and let me know how it works out for you, or if you do it already. But don’t let me know if you’re writing from the P.O.V. of a serial killer in a giant spider costume, thanks. I’ll just imagine that from a safe distance.