Have you ever battled a dragon? Or a demon? Or performed a ritual to place a hex on someone? (If you say ‘yes’ to the last one, I don’t want to know.)
One of the oft-spouted maxims of writing novels is ‘Write what you know’. For science fiction and fantasy writers, that’s often impossible, because making things up – ‘speculating’, if you want the more highbrow term – is our job.
That’s not to say that we can’t incorporate a lot of our life experience anyway – personality types we’ve encountered, geography we’ve explored that we turn into a great setting for a scene, the way we react to situations, aromas, tastes, sounds. But as much as we might yearn to, the reality is we’re never going to be able to walk in the worlds of our heroines and heroes.
The same is true for romance writers, thriller writers, adventure writers… We just do our best to get into the heads of our characters.
And so do actors. Some performers go to extreme lengths to understand what their character is feeling, to provide that unmistakable sheen of authenticity to a role. This is called ‘method’ acting, and while it’s created some remarkable performances on screen, it’s often controversial as well.
Robert DeNiro prepped for his role as the crazed Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver by actually tooting around as a cab driver in New York for nights on end without sleep. Not overly extreme, and the resulting performance earned him a nomination for best actor.
One of the most famous examples of method acting is Heath Ledger’s incredible transformation into the completely psychotic Joker in The Dark Knight (2008). I first remember Ledger playing cute surfer-boy types in movies like Ten Things I Hate About You, so to watch him become unrecognizable as the Joker was stunning. And perhaps the best part of his performance was his addition of enough comedy, twisted as it was, to give the character some depth. In order to put himself inside the body and mind of the Joker, he sequestered himself inside a hotel room and messed with his own head, altered his voice so much that he had to keep licking his dried-out lips (which the producers kept as a very effective quirk of the character), and performed damaging stunts to provide authenticity to some of the violence.
The downside of all of this obsessive immersion is that he suffered from insomnia and exhaustion. And in the end it may be what killed him, after he accidentally overdosed on sleeping medication. You can’t argue with the incredibly unsettling performance he gave in the role, but he didn’t live to see the accolades.
So there can be a price to overdoing a quest for authenticity, and I’d say that goes as much for writers as actors. I’ve often wondered how people who write very gory horror, or write about serial killers, go to sleep at night. From personal experience, it’s challenging to write a very powerful scene because you’re living it with the characters, and hard to get it out of your head afterward. I have no desire to put myself into the mind of a psychotic killer for a while.
But that’s me. Some very successful writers have done just that.
A number of famous writers have undergone substance abuse during the course of their work. Stephen King is a superstar in the novel world, but he paid a steep price to get there, abusing everything from NyQuil, alcohol and cigarettes to both prescription and mind-altering drugs. Apparently he later said, after his family’s intervention in the 1980s, that he didn’t even remember writing some of his raft of horror novels. He made good use of some of his worst moments and emotions, though.
Ernest Hemingway famously suffered from depression, and became an alcoholic to cope. While a lot of people revere one of his earliest novels, A Moveable Feast, about his time in Paris, I found it very melancholy. One of his most famous quotes was “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.”
An article on the Writers Write website, Why Method Writing Makes You A Better Author, offers some suggestions on how to get into the headspace of a character you’ve never actually been, including a psychopath: “…remember a time when you were pushed to act in an amoral way. Use those feelings (or lack of them) to help you construct your character.”
I had enormous guilt about putting our beloved dogs to sleep when they became old and too sick to go on, even though I knew it was the kindest thing to do, so thinking like a psychopath would be very difficult for me, and frankly I’m glad of it. Nevertheless, when I was still suffering from chronic migraines, there were days when I was in so much pain that I felt as if I’d happily vampire-bite the first person who aggravated me too much and got within reach, and that feeling of having a flip side gave me the idea for the opening line in my first novel (sneak peek to come as I get the novel ready for publication!).
I like the fun side of striving for authenticity. There’s a very entertaining scene in one of my favourite series, Castle: Season 2 Episode 12, “A Rose for Everafter”, wherein, in order to figure out how his protagonist Nikki Heat would escape from the same situation, Rick Castle has his daughter Alexis duct-tape him to a chair, sealing his mouth as well. She and her grandmother then leave him to his own devices as he tips himself over and tries to retrieve various household items to cut himself free.
That’s ‘method writing’, and as I discovered with some research, a whole subset of the very large community of writers around the world who devote themselves to it. I’ve actually been to most of the locations in my first novel, so I can portray their flavour accurately. Since significant parts of my novels take place in the woods surrounding a small town in Ontario, my hubby and I have made many hiking expeditions talking about what would make a great backdrop for a scene. I also take a lot of photos, some of which I sell on Fine Art America, and have turned several of them into souvenir bookmarks for my upcoming Book Launch Party (more news on that to come as well – so much prep to do).
So while you have fun researching ways to give your writing the nuances that make it resonate with readers, bear in mind some cautions in a blog post, Method Writing – What, Why, and How, by Arc Studio, a website for screenwriters about using method writing safely, including avoiding burnout and taking some mental health breaks if you need to.
You can watch the Castle scene on YouTube for some inspiration and chuckles.