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.
First published on writing.ie 2011
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