What is “Method Writing”?

We’ve all heard of “method acting”. This is where an actor completely immerses themselves in a character to the point where they “become” the character. Daniel Day Lewis is a prime example of this approach. He’s learnt to be a butcher and a boxer for his film roles, and is known for staying in character throughout the film shoot.

This brings me to what I call “method writing”.

“Method writing” is a process whereby the author completely immerses themselves in the character and the character’s world. One of my favourite comic’s writers is Grant Morrison. In the ‘90s, Morrison created his magnum opus, a 55-issue comic called The Invisibles, a crazed, science-fictionesque tale involving time travel, magic, meditation, and drugs. While he was writing The Invisibles, Morrison actually lived the lives of many of his characters, as he explained in an interview with Alex Ness:

“I … performed magic on the Black Mesa by the Rio Grande … I went to yoga, meditation and martial arts classes all through the 90s to be more like my characters. I got involved in the fetish scene … I endured the hair-raising two-day Himalayan bus ride from Leh to Manali that’s mentioned in [the book] and [main character’s] descriptions of it are abstracted from the original, battered, on-the-road journals I kept.”

Of course, this kind of method writing is not always recommended. It’s probably best that Thomas Harris didn’t employ it when he was writing the character of Hannibal Lector. Also, safe to say that Stephen King would be best advised to avoid it. But I find the notion that a writer might try to become their character – to whatever extent – fascinating.

When I was writing my first novel, I decided to some first-hand research. The novel was set in a one-horse town in Wyoming. The story was based on an ancient Greek myth and the fictional town was called Thebes. Before I started to write it, I consulted a US atlas and scoured Wyoming for a small town that might have a Greek-sounding name. To my amazement, I found a town called Thermopolis. Even better, it was a small town with roughly the same population as my fictional town. So, I found out everything I could about Thermopolis and used photos of the area as reference as I wrote. But something wasn’t quite right. I felt I hadn’t quite captured the essence of the place. I decided I would have to experience it for myself. So, on a trip to New York, I went and spent three days in Thermopolis.

I found one of the interesting things about walking around Thermopolis was that it fit perfectly with the main character in my book. My main character is a mysterious stranger who arrives into town on foot. He spends most of the book wandering the town much to the consternation and puzzlement of the locals, who thinks he’s some kind of vagrant. I felt I was doing something similar. I was getting inside the head of my main character in a way that I never would have if I drove around the town as the locals and other tourists did.

The perfect example of this happened on the morning I checked out of my hotel. There was a large hill outside the hotel which I had incorporated into my book. I decided to get a closer look at it. So, bag on my back, I climbed halfway up and had a look around. After I’d come back down, I sat on a bench by the side of the road with my bag beside me. A car pulled out of the driveway of the hotel and stopped. The woman driving rolled down her window and shouted to me, “Are you okay?”

“Sorry?” I shouted back.

“Are you okay? Do you need some food?”

At once touched and baffled, I told her no, thank you, I was fine. Then, after a few minutes of bewilderment, I realised I’d achieved my ‘Method Moment’. For that split second, I WAS the mysterious stranger wandering around town, whom the locals think may be some kind of vagrant, and getting strange looks as well as kind offers of food.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have the character of a cross-dressing, vampire serial killer to research.

Oh dear.

 

First published on writing.ie 2011

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17 comments on “What is “Method Writing”?

  1. Very clever. Am sure your book will be nothing if not authentic. Crime writer Alex Barclay did much the same thing so … !

  2. Krystal Wade says:

    Cross-dressing vampire serial killer??? I didn’t know you were into that sort of thing. Lol.

    I agree with you that research should be done. I’ve hiked the trails of Skyline Drive and played in the streams and waterfalls in that area so many times that incorporating those moments into Wilde’s Fire was easy, but I’m not sure I can live as my character for much more than that. Maybe I can go outside and play in the dark and have my hubs dress as a scary monster and chase me?? Oh, that sounds like fun. Umm…gotta go! 😉

  3. Kelly Gamble says:

    My latest character buried her husband in the yard. I don’t think hubby will go for it. I did, however, eat a rock for Ragtown, and wandered around in the desert looking for rattlesnakes.

  4. Ashley Prince says:

    “Also, safe to say that Stephen King would be best advised to avoid it.” This made me laugh. And just so you know, this made my laugh my man laugh. As in, it was ridiculous low and deep and made my husband snicker at me.

    Oooh, cross dresser, vampire serial killer. I would like pictures of that research. Lol.

    Great post, Derek.

  5. Candy says:

    Loved this post. I used this method, unwillingly, in a museum in West Texas. I was captivated for 4 hours in a covered wagon, as I scribbled down all that I could!

  6. jamhenry says:

    Great post Derek. Very helpful for newbie like me. I think it is important to write about what you know and have experienced.

    Can’t wait to see the vampire photos!

  7. Neeks says:

    Great post, and a very interesting thought. I guess in my mind, I do get into each character. Haven’t tried this though, interesting. I may have to try this too!

  8. Great technique! One that can or should be employed by writers looking to create character realism and depth. Thanks!

  9. Emma says:

    That’s so cool you actually went and visited that small town in the US. Something for me to think about 🙂

  10. Really great Derek . . . the method writer: wow. I love the story you tell here and the details (and I have all those The Invisibles comic books & agree with you). Good luck exploring your new character’s life story lol.

  11. I have taken the inverse approach. Live a full and varied life. Then incorporate those aspects of your past into the material you write.

  12. CarrieVS says:

    I do a sort of virtual method writing. I don’t physically go out and do the things my characters do, but I do it all in my head and get very deeply involved.
    I’ve actually picked up some of the mannerisms of my main character – like biting my wrist and sucking it, but thankfully I don’t have sharp teeth or a high pain threshold, so I don’t break the skin. (I too am writing about vampires. In my version, they sometimes drink their own blood, for reasons that can be quite varied and kinda complex – vampires are quite different from humans, mentally – but includes when they are distressed.)

  13. I love this! Thank you for helping me give the word to how I feel when I write. I was trying to explain it to someone once and I just sounded crazy. This makes it so much easier to explain. I have always written like this. I love it. And yeah, thank goodness I write more realistic, contemporary fiction. LOL

  14. I think there’s something to be said for the view that every character has a piece of the writer’s personality in them, however small, like the sugar in the tomato sauce or the salt in the dough. It’s in the detail.

  15. Michelle Moloney King says:

    Hope this comment works, haven’t been able to publish a comment in ages from on iPad to WordPress.

    OK Derek, I love that you share music, guest posts and great writing advice. Right this post was saved for a hot cuppa, and it rocked!

  16. Excellent!! Enjoyed reading this, plenty of food for thought!!!

  17. Amy Eyrie says:

    Brilliant article. This is the deepest look into your process I’ve read so far. As usual, you’re eloquent and thoughtful. Perhaps you became dislodged from time like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five and were seeing your own future?

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