As a Theatre and Performance Major, I’m often asked to consider my character’s wants when playing a role. “What is my motivation?” is a question that actors pose so often that it’s parodied. But as it turns out, there’s something to this question. Actors use it to better inhabit their characters. If I can take anything away from my training as an actor, whether from the physical or method/emotional practices, it is that to create a real character, you have to find their desire.
I discovered quickly that this is not just a concept valuable in acting, but also in writing. The actress and theatre practitioner, Uta Hagen, came up with the “Six Steps,” a very technical approach to dissecting theatrical roles. Her strategy asks you, the actor, to answer six “in character” questions: 1) Who am I? 2) What are the circumstances? 3) What are my relationships? 4) What do I want? 5) What is standing in my way? 6) How will I get what I want?
In typical practice, actors will physically write down the answers to these six questions. In doing so, they uncover distinctive behaviors and quirks that contribute to their understanding of the character. This deepened understanding can greatly inform acting decisions, affecting everything from bodily movements to line delivery. This is because with each of the six steps, the actor takes a step deeper into the character’s mind.
I soon realized that this line of inquiry could help me better write my own fictional characters. Though designed for actors, Hagen’s questions are clearly applicable to fiction. In almost every novel, a dynamic character’s desire for something difficult to obtain catalyzes their journey, while the obstacles they face along the way drive the plot.
Given these similarities, why not apply this acting strategy to the writing of your own characters? You’ll hopefully find that this six-step formula will force you to explore your character’s desires. After all, a character will always want something, and whether you are becoming a character or creating one, it is important to figure out what that “something” is.
Another character concept related to desire is the idea of “bits.” This idea, which I also learned about in acting class, deals with the pacing of a scene in relation to the character’s wants. When using this strategy, the actors mark up their scripts with all the places their characters want change. Consequently, they can pinpoint the exact lines where tonal shifts should take place. This is not as easily done in a novel or short story. That being said, by practicing “bits,” actors may develop a better feel for the rhythm of dialogue, and of language in general. This knowledge, of which words or phrases to emphasize and which to handle softly, directly translates to the writing process, to pacing in particular. As a writer and an actor, I can safely say that pacing is as important to writing fiction as it is to performing on stage.
It’s so important to recognize how much different forms of art can inform one another. It’s one of the most valuable things I’ve learned as a double major. When using theatrical practices in fiction writing, I’ve found my characters gaining a new life.