As you may remember, I have been known to engage in something I’ve decided to call “Method Writing”.
If you’re unfamiliar with Method Acting, basically it’s a technique employed by actors to put themselves in the psychological state of the character they’re portraying, to convey a more realistic sense of that character.
Robert DeNiro drove a cab on twelve hour shifts for a month before filming Taxi Driver.
Daniel Day Lewis has gone to extreme lengths to get inside the minds of his characters, spending months learning new skills and getting into their heads.
You get the idea. Doing things in real life that your character would do. Living as they would. Amassing their experiences, so you have the emotions and memories of those experiences to draw on for your performance.
Writers are portraying characters as well. We have to portray them all. Every single entity in a book is characterized by a single individual. Just take a moment on that. Every single entity in a book is characterized by a single individual.
Good writers will have a cast of stock characters that they can draw from to make things easier. You change details, mannerisms, speech patterns; the surface stuff that makes us different from one another can be changed as easily as a costume, and is about as effective at characterizing someone.
But the core of characters, the very heart of what makes someone tick, how many of those do we know? How many people do we understand, really understand in their heart of hearts? A good writer will have a few. Enough to get by. Great writers have more.
Thus, the more people we can understand, inside and out, and truly know, the more effective we can characterize the plethora of people needed to populate our work.
And Method Writing is one of the ways to do that. You try new experiences, go to new places, learn the things that your character will know, so you understand them better. Do you think I’d’ve guessed that a good Projectionist in a new building would have a roll of micropore tape in their pocket? No.
So: getting into the mindset of a character is key to portraying them realistically.
And yes, having similar experiences to that character helps us draw on genuine emotions and thus aids in achieving a level of realism that will translate into a more rich and lifelike individual.
Of course, we are writers; our job is to imagine these things. But we cannot work in a bubble. We’re always using our own experiences, the people we know, the things we do, to insert realism into our work.
I’m currently writing a book which requires me to know a lot about sleep. And insomnia.
I’m already having to invent dozens of people. I can’t really go be a paramedic, or a sound mixer for Skrillex, or an artist working in Paris. But I can understand what it would be like for them to be sleep deprived.
My next experiment is to remain awake for 100 hours.
During this time, I will periodically measure five things:
My blood pressure and heart rate.
My mental acuity, using simple math and reading comprehension tests.
My ability to see and sort colours.
I’ve been taking readings on all these leading up to my experiment, so I have a baseline.
I have excellent blood pressure. 🙂
I see colours pretty darn well. (Seems by biggest weakness is in the blue area of the spectrum.)
My reaction time is pretty constant.
My math skills are pretty good (always been quick to do basic math in my head, except, for some reason, the eight times-tables, which is apparently the blue of single digits).
My reading comprehension is good (the test itself had errors in it).
So I have a benchmark, because I want to have actual data points to compare to when I’m doing these things on no sleep. I’ll try to do them every twelve hours.
What do I hope to gain by staying awake for 100 hours? A better understanding of what my characters would be going through. I could fake it. I could probably write a good approximation. But having lived it will bring an air of authenticity to the work that I will feel much better about.
Understanding people is key to writing realistic characters.
I’m not going to enjoy doing it, but I will enjoy having done it.
Sometimes I can’t experience what my characters are going through. But these rare times when I can, I feel an obligation to at least try.
Thanks for reading.
P.S.: (I will report back in one week, when I’m just at the tail end of my 100 hours. I apologize in advance if it is riddled with insanity and/or is generally a mess. I will of course do a followup with a more articulate account of how it went.)
P.P.S.: It’s different from Gonzo Journalism, or Gonzo Writing, in that I’m not inserting myself into the narrative. It is a technique which serves only to help me understand and bring realism to characters in a story.
P.P.P.S.: I’ve been reading up on sleep and sleep deprivation a lot. I’m not going into this blind. It is the last step in my understanding, not the first.