As with an actor, it's a fiction writer's job to find and convey emotional reality in a medium wherein every element is artificial. Without that core of emotional reality, the performance feels false and superficial. Method acting, then, is a toolbox that helps the actor capture the emotional reality of artificial circumstances and share it with the audience in a fairly reliable way. Those same tools work for an author, who must convey that emotional reality through text alone.
As my old acting Maury Erikson coach taught us, the stereotype of the actor "losing himself in the part" is inaccurate. "If you really believe you're that character," Maury said, "you're psychotic and I don't want to be on the stage with you." The point of method acting, and the key to doing so effectively, involves connecting the fictional reality of your character to the emotional realities of the human condition, and then using those realities to energize your persona through the actions determined by the script.
For example, let's say your character is depressed. Do you, as an actor, pantomime the conventional signals of depression? Not unless you want the audience to laugh at you (and not in a good way). What you do instead is make choices - CONSCIOUS choices, dynamic choices - that fit the emotional reality of what your character is going through. And as anyone who's suffered severe depression knows, those choices usually involve trying to move past the depression, getting stuck in it anyway, and facing a new set of challenges as a result. Thus, instead of acting depressed, the actor (or writer) says: "What am I doing, and why? What will I do to accomplish my task, and what happens if/ when I can or cannot?"
In my work, I've explained this process as:
- Motivation (What do I want?)
- Obstacle (What stands in my way?)
- Tactics (What will I do to get what I want despite my obstacles?)
- Resolution (What happens if I do or do not?)
The emotional reality of the performance (regardless of the medium) comes through the struggle to get what I want, while facing my obstacles, and using my tactics, either successfully or otherwise. Thus, both the actor and character are constantly acting - not in terms of pretending, but in terms of DOING SOMETHING. The "something" in question might not be obvious to the audience at that time, but the actor/ author should always keep the character in action whether or not the audience is aware of that action or not. Trust me, they can tell subconsciously even if they don't see it consciously.
As Maury (and Gary Hopper, another one of my acting teachers) said, the key to good acting is to act UPON. Your character acts upon their circumstances, and you act upon your audience.
Such action might not be physical; sometimes the most powerful performances involve little physical movement at all. Your mind is always in action, though. Your emotions are always in action. From moment to moment, you - the actor/ author - are making choices about how to address your current situation, both in terms of the character's fictional circumstances and in terms of your desire to evoke certain feelings in your audience. And as both Maury and Gary reminded us, dynamic choices have dynamic results.
By "dynamic choices," I mean that you - as the actor/ author - assume a sort of meta-mind in which you're asking yourself...
- in character: What do I want/ need out of this situation?
- in performance: What effect do I want to have on my audience?
Art, as I have written about elsewhere, is a conversation: the Artist expresses, and the Audience responds. (See attached link.) As an artist (in whatever medium), you're trying to convey the things you wish to express in ways your perspective audience will understand. Intent is a huge (if rarely examined) part of the artistic process, and while it's more obvious in a physical medium like dance, music or acting, it's just as important in a "static" medium like painting, photography or writing.
And that intent is the core of the question, "What's my motivation?
As an actor portraying a character, you're asking "What does my character want from this scene?"
As an artist, you're asking, "What feelings do I wish to inspire in my audience through this scene?"
The more you're aware of what you're doing, both in and out of character, the more consciously, purposefully, dynamically and - most importantly of all - reliably you can do it.
Once you're aware of what you (both in and out of character) want to accomplish, you then determine what choices you will make in order to accomplish those goals.
- Your character will make choices based upon their past and present circumstances. A fighter who grew up in an abusive home, for instance, and who was terrorized by her brothers and step-father, who learned to fight because she had to protect herself, and who is now facing an alley full of drunken dudes who think she's easy prey, is going to make VERY different choices than a guy who grew up in a comfortable home, never learned to fight, and is now facing that same alley full of drunken predatory guys who still see that pampered rich boy as easy prey.
(This ties in, by the way, to a discussion we'd been having here elsewhere in another thread, regarding the ways in which gender, sexuality and relationships affect a story. They affect a story because those things affect the circumstances of the character(s) in question. In the example above, gender, sexual identity and relationship status / history will have a significant, perhaps even a determining, influence on both the main character and the alley full of would-be thieves. No one involved needs to have sex, or even be thinking consciously about sex, for those factors to shape the way those characters handle that situation... but those factors WILL have an impact in the way those characters behave during the confrontation at hand.)
- You the artist/ author will make choices based upon what you want the audience to feel. Go you want to scare them? Make them laugh? Get them to cheer? The more aware you are about the intent you have with regards to your audience, the more effective your writing will be.
For an actor, most tools are physical: stance, body language, tone of voice, expression, and so forth. Note that charisma and energy are physical tools in this sense even if those things can't be measured by physical dimensions; you can often feel a person's intensity even if they're not moving an inch, and a good actor knows how to use that sort of intense energy without physical movement.
Unless the performance is completely improvised (which most are not), the actor has to work within the boundaries of the script and characters as they've been laid out by the author(s) and director of the scene. The actor, then, must base choices upon what the script reveals about the character's wants, needs, obstacles and tactics. In practical terms, this process usually involves script analysis, discussions with the other actors and the director, and rehearsals during which the actors and director explore the script to determine the best choices to make on behalf of their characters.
(If you're wondering why world-class actors turned in the worst performances of their careers in George Lucas' Star Wars prequel trilogy, it's because they were denied their usual toolkit. Lucas was so afraid the script would be leaked online that he didn't give the screenplay to the cast, or allow them to rehearse their scenes; instead, he fed them their lines right before the cameras rolled, without any of the context the actors needed in order to find the emotional reality of their characters and situations. Thus, you have Oscar-winning actors essentially reading their lines off a teleprompter without any idea what the hell is supposed to be going on. That's what happens when you, as an actor, can't work out your character's motivation... or, for that matter, your own... with regards to the scene in question.)
For a writer, your tools are words, backed up by the mental focus, emotional reality, and the intention of using those words to their best possible effect upon your audience.
Just as an actor practices physical exercises that allow her to use her physicality in the most effective ways, the writer should explore, understand and exercise language and in its many applications: grammar, tone, style, word-choice, etymology, vocabulary, conventional and unconventional applications of words and grammar, symbolism, cultural deployment of language, cultural significance of expressions, rhetorical techniques, psychological impact of words, common interpretations and misinterpretations of words and images, tropes and cliches, etc. etc. etc.
The more you know, and the more you understand the ways in which those tools can be used to get an effect from your intended audience, the more effective your writing becomes.
And that too, relates to the question, "What's my motivation?" Because on a meta level, you the writer want to know what effect you're trying to convey, and to whom. The more you know, and the more you grow, the more effective your work becomes.
What did I mean earlier by "dynamic choices"? This:
Make. Active. Choices.
Even if your character isn't moving physically, the scene must always remain in motion in at least an emotional sense if not a physical one.
To express your choices, then, you want to choose words that MOVE. Decisive words. With dynamic effects.
See how I just used rhetorical devices and punctuation up there, to emphasize the impact of that sentence? If I'd simply written the following, it wouldn't have nearly the same impact: "In order to express your choices, you should select words that convey movement and which can have dynamic effects." Both sentences contain the same information, with many of the same words. The second option is more technically correct in a grammatical sense. The first sentence, though, has more energy and impact. It's engaging, not indecisive. That's what I mean when I say that, especially for a writer, words are actions, and that your actions become more effective when you know how to work your words.
Dynamic acting and writing depend upon dynamic choices.
As Maury and Gary put it, you don't want to say, "It is my intention to keep the reader interested." That's boring. That's not active.
Instead, you want to say, "I want to capture my reader's attention."
Or: "I want to grab my reader by the throat."
Or: "I want to break his fucking heart."
"I want to piss him off."
"I want him glued to my book from the first page to the last."
The more dynamic your choices, the more dynamic your effects.
Obviously, you don't want every sentence to drive a train off an exploding bridge while you swordfight dinosaurs in space. That's going way the fuck overboard, and I have been known to do that. For me, as a writer, I needed to learn to rein in my earlier impulses to MAKE EVERY WORD MATTER, DAMMIT!!!!! That, too, is part of the "What's my motivation?" Q&A process. Because just as no character is going to spend every sentence kicking ninja ass while downing mouthfuls of flaming nitroglycerin, no writer wants to bludgeon their audience to death with the Wonder-Hammer of Rhetorical Doom.
Balance, too, is active. So is breathing.
And so, to wrap this tangent up, I just invite y'all to regard "What's my motivation?" as a meta-question.
For your characters, it asks what they want, what keeps them from having it, what they'll do to get it, and what happens when they do or do not. (Hint: It gives them a new motivation, with new obstacles, tactics, and results.)
For you the writer, it asks what effect you want your writing to have on the people who read it, and inspires you to make your writing sing.
Hope this helps.
The preceding dissertation began as a series of comments on a Facebook group for fantasy writers. I just kind ran with it, and thought the rest of you might enjoy seeing it as well, because if explains so much about how I work and where some of my techniques came from in the first place.