Last month I was lucky enough to be able to spend the weekend at one of Showstopper’s improvised musical workshops, and I picked up some really good advice. Which was a little strange, because it was advice that should be really familiar to me by now not just from improv, but from basically every form of long-form creative writing that I’ve tried. And it’s not all that hard to describe. It’s simply that characters should:
- Have emotional connections to things and particularly other characters,
And that’s it. So why despite knowing this did I (and, to be fair, basically all of the other improvisers) fall into the trap of starting scenes and stories where our characters weren’t engaged with the world, doing things just because “that was what should happen next” rather than because they cared?
“It’s that easy. It’s that hard.” These were the wise words that Sean McCann often repeated after giving us the aforementioned advice. And I think that’s a reasonable description of the experience of trying to come up with a character like this on the spot – once you’ve got a good character in your head and have managed to tune yourself into their emotional state then it can seem that everything just flows – their actions become clearer, a set of possible journeys that they may go on over the course of the story come into focus , and the improv magic happens. But it’s getting there that’s hard, and I’m wondering why.
One reason I’ve seen talked about a lot is that showing emotion and portraying it well requires you to be vulnerable, and we tend to shy away from it a lot. At one point in the workshop I was asked to perform a song that would take place in a musical following the death of my character’s mother, and enough of that bled through that I was still blinking back tears after finishing. Luckily it was a very supportive group and I didn’t feel too embarrassed afterwards, whereas if I was in public, being in tears like that would certainly have drawn a few questioning looks. As much as we love it in fiction, showing emotion in real life can seem frowned upon – which is ironically, another emotional reaction, but modern life seems to do quite well with allowing mild disdain. If you go further and have a large emotional reaction to something that most people would not expect, they may start thinking there is something wrong with you (and to examine this reaction further is somewhat beyond me, and particularly this post). We spend time trying to dampen down our emotional responses when people are watching us, so is it any surprise we find it hard to call those up on stage?
But another reason I’ve not heard so much might actually tie into the popularity of some piece of art and some artists. Generally speaking, we’re not that great at describing our internal state, and correspondingly we’re not that good at fully understanding other’s descriptions of their own internal state, particularly when we’re talking about emotions. It’s just all so subjective, and I think we often don’t have the language to describe how emotional states change over time very well. So when we talk about films, TV, books, or whatever, we often focus on cool actions, or ideas to describe the books. “Hey, fancy reading about a wizard who’s also a private detective?” “Cool.” We may even manage to pick up on emotional character traits that endeared us to a character – “His inner monologue is really funny – he’s so snarky”. But despite many on the internet declaring their love for a piece of art because it contained “all the feels”, we still don’t necessarily talk about quite how the creator hooked us in with the character’s range of emotional reactions and how they changed over time. And so sometimes creators misunderstand why a piece of art is so loved, and we get homages and reboots which are somehow lacking the heart of the original, because although the emotional beats may be there, the artistry behind it is missing. So it is any surprise that when we’re improvising we go down the easy route of thinking of who the characters are on the outside, without the emotions that drove them to become that person? After all, there’s an awful lot of bad fiction out there (mine surely included) that didn’t manage this despite the author having a lot more time to think. But when a writer can manage to get this emotional connection despite the barrier that the lack of suitable straightforward language throws up, we get a truly memorable piece of work.
Luckily, we have more than that to work with. We have similes, metaphors and all that subtle communication that goes on while we’re talking, from changing the words we choose to describe a situation depending on how we want the audience to feel about it, to the things characters carefully don’t say to each other – the gap seemingly magically illuminating to the audience things the character is trying to hide. And on stage we’ve got body language and tone of voice on top of the techniques of poetry and prose , even if we do lose the ability to beam thoughts directly from the character’s heads to the audience. We just need to make sure we take the time to think about actually doing it.
So where does that leave me? Making the same mistakes time after time? Perhaps. But hopefully the investment I’ve made in writing this post will mean that I notice what I’m doing more. I’ll get frustrated with myself, maybe push myself harder. And when I get it right, or nearly right, I’ll remember that this is hard and I’ll be that little bit prouder, that little bit happier with my work. And who knows, maybe I’ll find myself being more in tune with my own emotions, more aware and careful of those of others.
I know I’d read that character arc.