In this feature article I look at how method acting works and how and why both actors and writers should use the technique. Whether you’re an actor or writer, or a fan of the arts, I hope you enjoy this article.
My mission on Fiction Earth is to share my love of stories in all form, and of the artistry that goes into creating stories.
Today, I would like to discuss method acting. What it is. How it works. And how both actors and writers can use the technique. And I hope to also shed some light for story lovers who are interested in learning the tricks of the trade.
Thankfully, method acting is something I a very experienced in. Even as a young kid I would pretend to be characters. And y love of characters naturally developed into a career in writing and acting.
I am absolutely obsessed with characters. Always have been.
It started, innocently enough, when I fell in love with the characters of Star Wars the first time I saw the movies on TV one Christmas.
Years later I would begin acting. That was another side of my love of characters. When I was in university (and amazingly not on a creative writing course but rather learning I.T.) I started learning acting. I spent countless hours in my bedroom acting all the best parts from Shakespeare. It was here that I began to learn method acting, which I’ll get into in just a moment.
Then I became an actor. And that, in turn led me to starting to write professionally.
But my love of characters extends far beyond my career. Even when I’m at home chilling I will grab a stuffed animal and pretend it’s alive. I am not joking. I can’t help myself. I even pretend that inanimate objects like knives and forks are characters with personalities. It’s crazy.
One of the good things about this character-obsession of mine is that it is very helpful when it comes to acting and writing characters. Because when you’ve spent your entire life pretending that even spoons have backstory… well, you get rather practiced at creating characters.
I’ve shared a lot of my knowledge of character development in my main article on Writing Characters. Today, though, I thought you might like to her about one of my favorite techniques for bringing a character to life: method acting.
Method acting is a truly fascinating art. And it’s something that actors, writers, and story lovers can all appreciate.
Method acting is one of the most popular acting techniques. And it isn’t only used by actors. It’s used by writers too.
Authors who write in first person naturally act out the roles of their characters. When you’re writing “One day I… me… and then we…” you naturally imagine yourself inside your character’s shoes. It can be quite a thrilling experience. You get to genuinely feel what your character feels.
Authors who write in third person are less likely to use method acting, because they are not writing as though they were the character. But for my money, that’s a mistake. Because even when you write in third person you can still learn a great deal by pretending to be your character.
No matter what perspective you’re writing in, it’s about becoming the character.
As Michael says on Daily Writing Tips, “Many fiction writers approach their work as an actor does his. When they are writing about a character, they become that character”.
So; how does method acting work? How do actors and writers use method acting to get into character?
How To Method Act Your Roles (My number 1 Character Writing Tip)
*Note: I’ve written this for actors and writers. But if you are a story lover who does not write or act you can still try this technique. Trust me, you will find it fascinating.
Method acting is largely the same for both actors and writer. The one crucial difference is that performers use method acting to make their portrayals more believable, whereas writers use method acting in order to decide how a character would act, what decisions they would make, and what they would say. Bear this in mind as you try the following technique.
To step into your character’s shoes, start by taking off your own shoes
If you want to be a character, stop being you. You need to put your own thoughts aside and become a blank slate in order to method act effectively. Otherwise you are essentially writing your character on top of yourself, which would be like writing on pages that have already been written on.
You need to remove you in order to become the character.
To do this I highly recommend that you spend ten minutes meditating. And I completely understand if that sounds a little bizarre to you. Because here we are discussing acting and writing. What does meditation have to do with that?
When you method act a character you are stepping out of your own mind and becoming the character. In order to do that you must first put your own thoughts and feelings aside. You cannot become someone else while you are too busy being yourself.
Now, I happen to write about meditation on the side, for my sister site TheDailyMeditaiton.com. Don’t worry, I am not going to ask you to buy anything. I’ve written a completely free guide to meditating. And I’ve also written a guide to using meditation to improve your writing. Take a look.
As I mentioned, you will find it very helpful to meditate for ten minutes before you continue. This is like wiping the page clean so you can start anew.
Choose the one scene you are going to method act
You need to know which scene you are going to method act. This will be obvious if you are an actor. But not so obvious if you are method acting a character in a novel you’re writing.
If you are writing a novel, some good scenes to act out are:
- Scenes you’re currently stuck on.
- Scenes you have written but which you feel you need to know better. For instance, maybe you’ve got the action down but you want to step into your character’s shoes so you know how to describe what they are feeling.
- Or you might method act a character that you’re just currently fleshing out.
It’s worth noting that you certainly do not need to method act all scenes, or even necessarily very many of them. As writer Jamie Todd Rubn says, “When I am writing a character, I tend to know what emotion it is I am trying to convey but in most instances, I don’t have to feel that emotion myself.”
However, there certainly are occasions when method acting can help. You just have to choose the right scenes to use it for.
Run through what has happened before this scene
Go back ten pages. Read from there. And as you read, imagine that you are the character and you are living through what the character is living through. This is very important in order to warm-up your imagination and to begin to get into the role.
Pause when you get to the beginning of the scene you are about to act out
You’ve got some decisions to make here.
You need to write down, or memorise, the following.
- What emotional state is the character in right now?
- What is their objective (what are they trying to accomplish)?
- What is their relationship to other characters in the scene?
- Are there any other important factors? For instance, if they’re in a house that’s on fire you might want to be aware of that.
Translate the character’s world into your own world.
This is the point at which the scene becomes very, very real to you. You want to translate everything in the scene into your own emotional world.
If the character is speaking to someone they are romantically interested in, you need to imagine it’s your own crush.
If the character has an objective that matters to them, make it an objective that matters to you.
If the character is in an emotional state, bring in your own emotions. Choose one time you felt the way the character is feeling and imagine you are living through it again.
This process is a little tricky, so I would like to give you an example from my own life.
Let’s say that I am acting the balcony scene from Romeo & Juliet.
In this scene, Romeo is excited and perhaps a little nervous because he’s talking to Juliet outside the Capulet’s home, where he is in real danger. His heart is fluttering and he is torn in two. Part of him wants to be quiet and perhaps to flee, the other part wants to shout out his love for Juliet. And his objective is to know that he and Juliet share a sacred love.
So, to method act this, the important points are:
Emotions: excitement |fear |love
Characters: love interest
Objective: To know that he and Juliet share a sacred love.
The next step is to translate this into my own (or your own) life.
Thankfully, this example is actually rather easy for me.
The first time I asked a girl out was at school. I was terrified that other kids might hear me asking her out (I was bullied a lot at school). My objective was to arrange a date with her. There are a lot of similarities. So this is a good memory recall for e to use.
Vividly imagine the scene
The next step is to vividly imagine the translated scene.
So, for my example above, I need to vividly imagine that I am living through my past experience of asking a girl out for the first time.
There is a specific way of doing this. It’s a method from the godfather of method acting, Konstantin Stanislavski.
The method, which is called memory recall, works like this. You bring to mind the experience from your own life. So, for me, I bring to mind the scene when I asked my beloved Sarah out. You then vividly imagine the details of the scene using your senses. See, hear, smell, taste, and touch the scene.
One aspect of the scene will soon scream out at you. This is the trigger. It’s the trigger that fires your emotions. For me, when I think about that memory and I imagine Sarah’s eyelashes flickering at me, I get a very real sense of excitement. And when I think about the voices of the other kids in the room nearby, I feel nervous. These are triggers, they produce the emotions.
It might seem strange that emotions last with you for so long. But everything you have ever experienced is contained in your subconscious, and you can access it using memory recall.
So, vividly imagine the scene and find the emotional triggers.
Make your objective palpable
The next step is to state the objective. If you remember from above, Romeo’s objective is to know that he and Juliet share a sacred love.
Right now, this objective is just words. It doesn’t actually mean anything emotionally.
The next step is to make this objective an emotional goal, something that truly fires you up.
I can distinctly remember that before asking Sarah out I imagined what it would be like to leave school holding her hand. Ah, how romantic. But that imagining was powerful. Even today, decades later, I can remember how that objective made a young me feel.
The key is to make yourself truly want to achieve the objective. You will know when you feel this because it will put a fire in your belly. If you do not genuinely feel that fire, you do not have the objective right.
If you have followed the steps up to now you will be able to create a very vivid and emotional scene.
In many ways, what happens next is the easy part. Because if your emotions and your objective are correct you will launch into the scene with all the passion of Montague’s finest son. For an actor, this will make your performance highly believable. And for a writer, it will give you more realistic characteristation. Writing for Just Creative, Keneth Widman says writers, “can rely on this System when they want to convey realistic human behavior and characteristics through the characters they create.”
It is here that actors and writers part ways.
If you are method acting a role as an actual actor, then you must continue the scene as written. To do this, you use the character’s body and their dialogue in an effort to achieve your objective. For instance, if you are acting Romeo, you are using Romeo’s body and his words in order to get Juliet.
If you are writing a character for a novel, movie or game, you will likely use method acting to feel out your character. This is about insight.
If you are writing a character, when you method act the scene do the following:
- Ask yourself what the character would do next based on what they are feeling.
- Find their tongue. Words are based on emotion. Write your dialogue while you are feeling those emotions.
- Use the emotions you’ve created to write your descriptions. For instance, if, while you were method acting, you noticed that you adopted a certain type of body language, put it in your novel. (More on this in my guide to Body Language for Writers).
In essence, writers should use method acting to gain insight into the character’s mind, emotions, and motivations. The key is to explore your feelings and use them to inform your writing.
Method acting truly is a remarkable experience. When done correctly you genuinely feel as though you are living the life of the character. And for writers it can help to increase the drama in your novels.
NowNovel tells us, “Using techniques adapted from method acting in writing fiction ratchets up drama because of the way in which they bring aspects like setting and character to life.”
Plus, there is the added bonus of feeling as though you’ve been teleported into your very own scenes.
I will always remember one day when I was rehearsing Hamlet at university, I truly was transported into the scene. I could smell the castle walls and hear my mother, Gertrude, calling for me, and my gut was twisted with hate for that murderous Claudius. And if you asked me my name at that precise moment, I would have said Hamlet, and I would have meant it.
Learn more about method acting
If you would like to learn ore about method acting, there is only one place to start: Stanislavski’s essential An Actor Prepares
I thought I would answer some of the commonly asked questions here.
If I am using my own emotions when method acting, am I not being me, rather than the character?
If you have correctly translated the fictional world into your own world, you will be the character. For instance, imagine you’re playing a character who is terrified of spiders. You are not terrified of spiders. You’re terrified of heights. In this instance, you would translate emotions by using your fear of heights rather than the character’s fear of spiders. So even though the emotions are based on your own life, they are translated into the world of the character.
I get too emotional when I act. It stops it from working. What do I do?
A. If the character is that emotional then you are doing the right thing. If you are being more emotional than the character would be, change your memory recall. Use a less emotional memory.
Do actors ever become mentally ill because of method acting?
Unfortunately, yes. There have been many cases of actors who became mentally ill from method acting. And not just mentally ill but physically ill too. When Billy Bob Thornton was filming Sling Blade he put glass in his shoes so he would limp believably. I recommend not going this far, though you might consider it if you’re being paid the Hollywood salary. And really, it isn’t necessary anyway. When Dustin Hoffman told Lawrence Olivier that he hadn’t slept for 72 hours in order to prepare for his role in Marathon Man, Olivier replied, “My dear boy. Why don’t you just try acting?” There’s a lot of truth in that quote.
I method acted a character I’m writing and realised that I’d made the wrong choices. I now have to write it again. It will take me 1000 hours to rewrite the book. Thanks, Paul.
- You are very welcome. And I feel your pain. I spent three years writing a novel I’m still trying to sell.
I hope you have found this article helpful. If you have, please will you do me a big favor? Can you either share this article on Facebook, or leave a comment? That way I know that you enjoyed this piece, and I will create more articles like it.