I promised to write a little more about creating a history for the characters I play as an actress. The idea of writing a history for the role is to create a series of emotional events, loosely based on real memories, to create the emotional responses that the role requires.
Let’s use the movie, “Dead On” in which I play an abused wife who teams up with her lover to kill their spouses. Think, “Strangers on a Train” with a twist.
Now, despite what my harsher critics might think, I am not a homicidal maniac or a woman who would allow a man to abuse me, but Erin, my character, is. So, I have to find a way to link into something real in my early childhood, teen years, etc, that would produce this person. My real memory might not be sufficient, so I have to enhance it.
Let’s take an example. I might remember a time when my mom blamed me for something that my little sister did and my feelings were hurt. That’s the first element, there has to be a real emotion surrounding it. Say, my sister fell down while we were playing and began to cry, my mom rushes in, assumes I hit her, and admonishes me.
Okay, that happened, what happened next in life is, I explained, my mom relaxed and I helped make dinner. But, for this character, I start by writing down the real incident and ‘feeling it,’ (this is sensory work, more on that later) then I change the events afterward but keep the emotion going. My mom rushes in, admonishes me, then she hits me, I watch while my mom cradles my little sister as she makes dinner and I am verbally abused. It can get much worse, I could run away and be physically abused by a neighbor, I could hide in my closet and no one comes for me, the possibilities are endless, but the point is the same.
What happened in my childhood, teen years, young adult, grown up, that resulted in Erin, (my character) becoming a person capable of murder? I have to create that history.
I do the same thing to fill in any spaces in the script. If the story picks up a week later at some point, what happened in that week?
This is especially helpful for film where you shoot the scenes by location, completely out of order. I may have to shoot the opening and closing scenes in the same day! How I use this process during the shooting is this; I go to my notebook, read and experience all the emotional points I’ve chosen, starting with earliest memories and coming all the way up to date. Then I read through any scenes that come before the one I’m doing today, and emotionally feel those as well. I get right up to the scene I’m doing now and put it away.
Now I am emotionally prepared to be the person the screen writer and the director need me to be in that moment.
This is a simple version, of course, and some characters are closer to me than others, but I always have to find the shift in personality, choices, and behavior. Sometimes it’s a step to the left, and sometimes it’s a mile away.
Still, fun stuff! And it works just the same for writing. I find I don’t have to do complete emotional workups for all my written characters, but I have to have a strong emotional base to make them real. It also frees me up. I find my characters saying and doing things that I swear I didn’t think of. That’s really fun!
So, whatever your field is, dig in, enjoy, do it for love.