Thursday, March 18, 2010

Losing Yourself

by David Ellis

The other day, some friends and I were talking about movies—probably owing to the recent Oscars—and then to great performances. Heath Ledger came up and someone told me he fell into the school of “immersion” acting. The idea, as I understand it, is “becoming” your character all the time, staying in role 24/7, wearing the Joker make-up even when off the set.

(Note: Wearing Joker makeup 24/7 only counts as immersion acting if, in fact, you are playing the Joker in a movie; otherwise it’s considered creepy.)

Then someone asked me if I immerse myself in my characters. In the traditional sense, the answer is no. I don’t become my protagonist all the time. I don’t see how any writer could do that. It’s the difference, I suppose, between an actor playing a character and a writer scribbling out that character plus everything else around that character. The writer is covering more ground than just that one person. (See witty banter between Tina Fey and Robert Downey Jr. at the Oscars.)

But it raises an interesting and related question. Obviously, we all try to get inside the heads of our characters every time we plot an action they would take, a thought they would have, dialogue they would speak. But do we practice a mini-version of immersion?

I do so but only sparingly. I once wrote about a serial killer and found that I was writing more powerful prose if I was listening to violent rap music. Sometimes when I have to write a “mood” scene I think about what I want the mood to be and then put on music that gets me in that frame of mind. And sometimes it works the other way—I happen to have on some music that ends up altering my mood and the prose seems to adjust accordingly.

It’s not only music; at times I have used television or movies, but less as a deliberative choice. I don’t necessarily decide to watch something on a particular topic to get me in the mood to write a certain scene or point of view, but if something I watch gets me in that mood, I will try to take advantage of it. Especially because these days, when I’m writing, it’s sometime past midnight and my general mood is tired and cranky.

I would be interested in what others do. Time to write being at a minimum for me, I’ll take any crutch or inspiration I can get. And I am continually surprised at how much I learn from other writers and readers on this blog. Do any of you try to get (and stay) in role, playing your protagonist in real life, even for a short time?

That’s it for me, for now. It’s time to get some sleep and this damn clown make-up takes a long time to scrub off.

18 comments:

Dana King said...

Some of this immersion stuff is creepy, even if you are playing the Joker.

I try to think what a character would do or say while I'm writing, but I don't immerse myself in it; there's too much other stuff to think of. I used to listen to music when writing, but I rarely do now. My musician's mind keeps wandering off to listen too actively.

There is one "immersive" thing I do. One draft is used just to hone each character's dialog, casual actions (beats) and description. For this I keep an inventory of every scene each character makes an appearance, then go from instance to instance, only writing that character. I'll take a few minutes to "get my mind right" (Okay, today I'm Doug, think like Doug, how does Doug speak, what does he look like, what are his mannerisms), then write all his dialog and other personal stuff. If that takes less than a day (as it will for relatively minor characters), I'll do something else to cleanse the palate, then come back and get myself into Claire and write all her stuff.

Doing this makes it easier for me to maintain continuity for my characters, especially when their appearances may be far apart.

David Ellis said...

That's very interesting, Dana. I might try that myself. I don't have that kind of discipline normally.

Michael Dymmoch said...

Thanks for the tip on music, David. I knew you can change your mood by changing your music--never thought to apply it to writing.

As for immersion, I'm not very disciplined, and I tend to do my best writing when something--a scene on the street, some research fact, an anomaly on the El--triggers an image or dialog in my head. I just grab a pen and take notes.

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