Writers Are Ugly Actors

sophie jonas-hillGuest Post
by Sophie Jonas-Hill

If writers were better looking, they would be actors. Our skill set is very similar, they have to pretend to be a whole heap of different people, and so do we. In a way, we’re even more versatile because we don’t have the dead eye of the camera judging us and prescribing what we can be. We get to be anyone and everyone regardless of gender or ability or skin colour. Or we should be able to, anyway.

What ever character you’re working on, if they’re not coming to life then I’d heartily recommend taking a long look at the acting profession and try ‘being’ your character for a while, rather than writing them.

In my last book, my main character was a woman, but her opponent or adversary or leading man, however you want to see him, was, well, a man. And I’m not. Added to that, he was from New Orleans and an Iraq war veteran to boot, and I wasn’t either of those things. I’m not even American.

So, to get under his skin, I had to be him. I would suggest this activity is one probably best under-taken alone, but it’s up to you and how you feel about your nearest and dearest. The first stage is research – I used the internet to find voice clips of people from the same part of the world, I read books and short stories and watched films set in the region where my book is set. I also found websites about the unique dialect of the area written by locals, and read them over and over out loud, practicing how the words felt. You can do a lot of similar things, and I can also recommend loading sound clips onto your i-pod or similar device and listening to them on the bus, on the way to work or school – surround yourself with the sound.

While you listen, try and move also. If you’re watching film and T.V, try and find an actor who’s close to how you see your character and try and move like them; get up, walk about, see if you can move like them and use the ‘muscle memory’ later when you write. Another thing I try which works well for me is to imagine you are the character being interviewed. Write a list of questions, stick them up by a mirror and watch yourself answering them. You might be surprised how your expression and movements change.

After that, I tried to make a cup of coffee as if I was my character; I walked like he did into the kitchen, I boiled the kettle and drank the coffee. I flicked through the TV channels and stopped on the one he might have watched and made an imaginary phone call to someone. I was him before the book began, in the back story which it slowly reveals, and I was him after the book finished just to trying to work out what he would feel after the end. I was him on down time, taking a bath, getting angry with someone over the meal he’d ordered. I was even him brushing his teeth, which started to feel rather odd. True, my husband interrupted me in full Deep South rage at an invisible opponent, but we’re over it now.

There’s that old truism that to know someone, you need to walk a mile in their shoes – as writers we have to walk a mile in a hundred other people’s shoes, but it’s something really worth doing. Next time you’re reading draft number four and wondering why someone in the back ground isn’t quite as three-dimensional as you’d like them to be, go make yourself a coffee, or a tea, or a fruit juice, but do it as them, not you. It’s amazing how that can help you get under their skin — and besides, it’s a great excuse if your wife catches you trying on her underwear.

Sophie Jonas-Hill is a writer and an antenatal teacher-in-training. She battled with dyslexia which meant she kept her writing as a guilty secret for years. The birth of her daughter changed her life for the better, sparking both her new careers at once. Her first novel, My Crooked Little Sister, was just released in December 2013. She is currently working on the sequel, as well as a number of other projects, including some literary fiction. You can find more about Sophie on her blog and her Author Central page.

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11 thoughts on “Writers Are Ugly Actors”

  1. Sophie,

    As you state, when we write fiction we must get into the heads of characters whose experience we never truly know. Like imagining the guy making coffee and channel surfing.

    I have done that. How can a WASP author like moi include a significant character in a novel (like my current project) who is female, young and of a different ethnic background?

    Part is experience–I remember being young. Part is observation–I have witnessed strong women deal with life’s challenges. And part is research–I read about the specific ethnic group in the period the story takes place. Using these methods, authors can create a character profile. If you do your homework and stay true to the profile, you are likely to get it right. As you put it, “get under his skin.”


  2. Thanks for reading guys, it’s something I love doing and so often write outside my gender and location/age/background to test myself – and because it’s fun. I’m often reminded of how people will tell you the most amazing things that have happened to them, which astound you but to them are just the pattern of their lives, and so I always feel that writing away from your comfort zone, until it becomes your new comfort zone, is crucial to give your reader the same feeling. They may be gasping at what your characters go through, but if your character believes it, so will your reader believe in your character.

  3. As a writer who also acts, I see this clearly – apart from the “ugly” part!

    Describing a gesture is aided by acting it out, and an understanding of body language helps convey what lies behind the action; for example, outstretched hands with palms upturned convey different meanings depending on what level they are held (head, shoulder, chest, waist, lower… try it in front of a mirror!).

    Most of all, experience of trying to deliver poorly-written lines really, really helps in improving my own written dialogue. 😉

  4. Having read ‘My Crooked Little Sister’ I can vouch for how well this works – had me entirely convinced you’d spent a year or two in the Deep South. I’m far from sure I can do this as well as you but I’ll certainly try harder.

  5. Sophie, all this attention to character shines through ‘My crooked little sister’. It’s not just about accuracy, it’s about coherence: each character in the book feels like a whole person. I work with and live with characters before I even have a plot. It does mean that my books have a tendency to change direction after the first draft, but I can’t write until I know the people, and until they can take charge and drive the book.

  6. Great post Sophie – and everything you researched paid off in MCLS; I became so immersed in the deep south and your characters, it was a shock to be back in the ‘real’ world when I finished reading.

    Love the thought of you having a rage as Red…

  7. The interview idea is excellent and there are online interviews you can use if you don’t know what questions to use. This one is invaluable:

    For writing my dolphin characters I do a lot of swimming. I see the same surface effects as they see them. The way the light hits the bubbles streaming around my eyes at the surface. I also draw on my old sailing experiences to get the feel of the night-time ocean and skies surrounding me. it’s a beautiful thing.

    But some of the questions ins the questionnaire above have to be modified heavily.
    For example: “What is in your characters refrigerator right now? On her bedroom floor? On her nightstand? In her garbage can?”
    That has to be changed to, “What food sources are closest to your character right now? What is below her on the ocean floor? What useful and useless items can she see around her in her immediate environment?”

  8. My daughter is an animator and often acts out a scene before tackling it on screen. As a writer I find body language to be at least as important as dialogue, especially when the body betrays a disconnect between what is being said and what is being felt. Great post, thank you. 🙂

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