It is hard to imagine that it was only a month ago that I had introduced the Embodying Character Series, where–with a little help from my friends–I hoped to explore how acting techniques could also be applied to writing. I truly enjoyed my fascinating conversations with Ellen Denny and Patrick Cook (currently starring in the Anne and Gilbert: A Musical at The Guild in Charlottetown, PEI) about how they researched and developed their characters.
In my introduction, I mentioned that I was partially inspired by Sandra Nickel’s lecture, “Creating the Authentic Gesture: Bringing Acting Techniques to Writing,” so it only made sense that she would be the person I asked to help finish this discussion. Sandra is a dear friend and colleague who I met while studying at VCFA. She’s a writer who is committed to understanding all aspects of her characters. Having heard her read, I can confidently say that her middle grade mystery set in a Swiss boarding school is delightfully creepy. Like me, Sandra is also fascinated by process, often having special guests on her blog: whatwasonher.net.
Sandra Nickel holds a Masters in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has published in The Looking Glass and the first chapters of her first middle grade novel will be published by Hunger Mountain later this year. Before turning to writing, Sandra studied acting for three years in New York City. If you were a fan of New York’s acting scene, you might have caught her in some very dark, very serious off-off-Broadway showcases or serving up coffee as “Sandy” on As the World Turns.
Mel: I was intrigued by the differences in how Ellen and Patrick approached their craft. Was there anything that particularly stuck out for you and how this might relate to how you’ve used acting theory to approach character?
Sandra: Many of Ellen’s and Patrick’s thoughts about creating character resonated with me, both as a writer and former actor, and gave me more than a little to think about.
One of the things that grabbed my attention most was the difference in how they approach embodying Anne and Gilbert. Although I know their descriptions are only a small part of how they work, in a way, Ellen came off as sounding as much more of a method actor. She made a long list of Anne’s traits that she gleaned from Montgomery’s works; she spoke about the importance of the costume to the character; she meticulously rehearsed in a long skirt.
Patrick, on the other hand, had a keen notion of the similarities and differences between himself and Gilbert and how he could use the knowledge of himself to flush out Gilbert’s character. This sounds more like the legendary acting coach Uta Hagen and her belief that you cannot even hope to be an effective actor until you observe yourself and know yourself.
As far as writing goes, both approaches can be hugely helpful. Many writers do a sort of Q&A with their characters so that they can make a list of their traits. I did this in the early stages of a middle grade novel I was working on. And Mel, you talked about changing your hair as you’ve written different characters to bring you deeper into the reality of their movements. If writers observe themselves as Patrick did and become intimately aware of the different gestures they make in response to their varying emotions, it’s usually easier for them to come up with natural and expressive movements for their characters. I still keep a mirror in my desk drawer so that if I’m stuck and can’t translate emotion into action, I can bring up an emotion and observe what I do. I might use my exact physical reaction, or what I see might inspire me to use something else.
Mel: I know one of the things I’ve learned to think about is the duality of how we see ourselves, versus how others see us. In a novel, particularly if you’re working in close first or third, this can be quite tricky to navigate. One of the things I was interested in was outward perceptions of a popular character and how Ellen and Patrick both dealt with it to find something that was wholly their creation.
Sandra: Ellen and Patrick have a tough job because they are portraying characters that
are basically national Canadian heroes, not to mention internationally loved characters. That’s a lot of pressure. But beyond how readers and the audience view Anne and Gilbert, I loved what Ellen had to say about searching out Anne’s perceptions of herself as well as looking for how other characters in Montgomery’s novels perceive her. Let me find what she said . . . Here it is (from Part One of her interview): ‘It is one thing to consider how a character perceives themselves, but a lot can also be learned if the actor considers how the other characters perceive their character.’
Mel: This is a very interesting question. How the characters perceive them? It wouldcertainly create a multi-dimensional experience of seeing your own character, much like seeing outside of yourself. Or, how Patrick described learning about from one’s own experience.
You know that one of the things writers have to often consider is how the secondary characters reflect something in the protagonist. In a play like Anne & Gilbert (and I know that you haven’t seen it so you cannot speak to this directly but from my observations) the characters are certainly written to reflect each other, both good and bad.
How do you think we can learn from this approach?
Sandra: I would love to see Anne & Gilbert. You’re not the only one I’ve heard rave about it!
In terms of writing, right now I’m experimenting with what I’ll call a close, vibrant omniscient narrator. The goal is to have the narrator’s language vary from character to character and mimic the actual voice of each character—kind of like a story with multiple first-person narrators, yet told from the outside. In addition, since the narrator is omniscient, I’m trying to give readers an inside-outside view, so that they see what my characters think they are doing, but also how the other characters around them see what they are doing.
Mel: Actually, Sandra. You know who does this extremely well…Interestingly enough, in all seriousness, L.M. Montgomery. This is something she is such a genius at. I think this was kind of part of the period she was writing in, but she definitely had the knack of being omniscient but then narrowing it right at the specific moment to give us a sense of what both characters are thinking in a scene.
Sandra: Ha! And here I was thinking I was working on something fresh and novel! Hmm. Pun not initially intended, but, okay, I’ll take it.
Mel: Is it possible to get to this inside-outside view with other types of narration?
Sandra: Another novel I’m working on has a straight first person narration. Here, I have to rely on my protagonist’s descriptions of other people’s reactions to her and the readers’ astuteness in understanding those reactions, even if the protagonist herself doesn’t get it. In the end, these different forms of storytelling try to do the same thing—deepen the story by swiveling the eye of the camera to take in not only the main character, but the other characters so that the reader can see how others perceive the main character. So yes, as Ellen says, a lot can be learned if we consider both inside and outside perceptions. And if a writer is capable of passing those learnings on to the reader, so much the better. The story will deepen and grow in vitality, just as Ellen’s portrayal of Anne did .
Join us on Thursday when we learn a little more about how Sandra’s acting experiences has informed her writing.