Shakespeare was an actor. So was Dickens.
And so are you.
Think about it. When you create stories, you play the lead role inside your head, don’t you? In fact, you play all the roles. It’s one of the most satisfying aspects of being a writer, getting all the parts exactly the way you want. (We writers are control freaks, aren’t we?)
Having enjoyed an acting career before becoming an author, I’ve found many commonalities between the art of acting and the art of writing. Here are a few.
Actor are obsessively superstitious about many things, and one in particular: speaking the name of a certain play by Shakespeare, the one in which a certain Highland lady can’t get blood off her hands. Actors won’t say the name of this play inside a theater. Instead, they call it “The Scottish Play.” Why? Because it carries a curse.
- At its first performance in 1606 the actor who was going to portray Lady Macbeth (a boy, in those days) died suddenly and Shakespeare was forced to replace him.
- In 1957 actor Harold Norman, playing the lead role, died after his stage battle with swords became a little too realistic.
- During a performance starring the famous Laurence Olivier a stage weight crashed down from above, missing him by inches.
And what if an unsuspecting soul makes the error of uttering the forbidden name of this play inside a theater? Is there a spell to remove the curse? Yes, there is. You leave the theater, spin around three times, spit over your left shoulder, and either recite a line from Shakespeare or spout a profanity. Got it?
Writers have superstitions too and they’re just as weird. Here are three that many writers hold:
- The final page of the manuscript must be even numbered. Or odd numbered, depending on who holds this superstition. If not, the manuscript is doomed to the publisher’s slush pile.
- No chapter can be 13 pages long. Any chapter that ends on page 13 must be revised to make it 12 or 14. Why? Because to many people thirteen is a cursed number, so a single 13-page chapter can doom an entire manuscript to failure. (By the way, there’s a name for the ubiquitous fear of the number thirteen: it’s called triskaidekaphobia. Try saying that fast three times!)
- Many writers can’t write unless they’re wearing a particular “lucky” piece of clothing, such as a certain sweater or a pair of slippers, perhaps a hat.
- Some writers won’t give characters the same initials as friends — otherwise, the person might suddenly have bad luck.
If you have your own pet superstitions, you’re in good company:
- Alexander Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, had to write all of his fiction on blue paper, his poetry on yellow paper, and his articles on pink paper. No exceptions.
- Charles Dickens had to place the ornaments on his desk in a specific order before beginning to write.
- Truman Capote refused to begin or end a piece of writing on a Friday.
- J.K. Rowling’s superstition is to hold off titling a piece until it is complete. She said on Twitter: “I only type the title page of a novel once the book is finished.”
Another commonality between acting and writing is the step-by-step creation process. For actors, this is the rehearsal process, with each week of rehearsal dedicated to a specific goal. For writers it’s the process of writing several drafts, with each draft having a specific purpose.
Also, actors know that you never let outsiders see a rehearsal. Outsiders won’t understand that it’s a work in progress.
Likewise, I recommend that you don’t show your early drafts to friends or family. I call them civilians. Insensitive words from a civilian can wound you deeply, like a dagger in your heart. So be careful who you let into your writing world. Seek, instead, constructive analysis from an industry professional.
Superstitions and preparation don’t get to the heart of what we do as artists, whether actors or writers. For that, we must dig deeper.
An actor looks at a script and asks: how does this character change? They know that change is crucial. The most compelling stories depict a main character who is transformed, whether from weakness to strength, or from isolation to inclusiveness, or from ignorance to wisdom, even if the lesson comes at a tragic price as it does for Shakespeare’s King Lear who learns, too late, that he has been wrong about everyone.
A life-altering change like the one Ebenezer Scrooge experiences in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge is transformed from miser and misanthrope into a kind and generous benefactor, is the sort of epiphany that affects us most deeply.
Here is where the two arts — acting and writing — converge. The actor’s art is to get inside the skin of a character. That’s how actors find the living core of a character. As writers, we must do the same. It’s how we plumb “deep character”.
And this is the crucible of how you can grow as a writer. Just as an actor gets inside the character’s skin, you find your way to deep character by writing from the inside out.
That means digging down to the emotional truth of a character. And the only reliable source of emotional truth is yourself. To get inside your characters, you must get inside yourself.
This is the question to ask yourself: “If I were this character in this situation, what would I do?” This way you’re tapping into what the great acting teacher Stanislavski called the “Magic If.”
You are acting the role, even though you perform it at your keyboard. You act it in your imagination until honest, character-specific emotions flow through you. When the scene is emotionally meaningful to you, you can trust that it will be emotionally meaningful to your reader. What moves you, will move them.
Harold Bloom, in his book Shakespeare: Invention of the Human, says Shakespeare’s characters feel so real to us because, in them, Shakespeare invented something that hadn’t existed before. Bloom defines this as ”personality,” or inwardness, what it means to be human. Whereas the ancient Greeks felt that fate determined lives, Shakespeare showed how personality — deep character — determines lives.
As writers, we tap into that age-old vein, a sacred stream, of creating human beings. We are not gods, to be sure; we’re just writers. But we do play with sacred fire. If you ask me, that is heaven enough.