A Different Way to Write Realistic Characters – Part 3: Affective Memory

In the last two parts of this short series (don’t worry, this is the last) I proposed a method of character creation for the writer which is based on the method actors use to create a persona for stage or screen. It’s called the Method, and was developed through rehearsal by Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky.

In this last part I’ll discuss two other means that can be used to flesh out story characters, and to help when the writer is a bit uncertain how a character might act in a given situation.

The first is called The Magic “If”.

You’re writing a story. It’s going well, and suddenly you place your character into a situation and wonder how they might behave or react to what is going on.

“Well, let me see…” you think, staring out of the window at the passing parade of human beings, and suddenly realise you have no idea what they should be doing in terms of the story. “I’m not him!” you wail. “I created this person but I’m not him! How would he react?”

And you suddenly realise that you’ve created a monster, someone who doesn’t behave like you at all and so you have no idea what to do. “He’s a serial killer. I’m not a serial killer…how do I know what to do in this situation?”

You just solved your own problem. The Magic If means asking yourself “What would I do if I were in this situation?”

If I were a serial killer…

If I were a King…

If I were in love with a handsome man…

If I were a fifteen year old boy who just got kicked out of school…

There are millions of situations we never encounter. But that doesn’t stop you writing about them. Just mentally put yourself in the same situation as your character and write about what you would do.

And that’s what your character would do.

The other technique for creating realistic characters, linked to the Magic “If”, is called  Affective Memory.

You may have heard the phrase “Write what you know”. It is often regarded as a misunderstood phrase, and it is, since it tends to limit fledgling writers to writing only what they have personally experienced. New writers run the risk of limiting themselves to certain places and character-types, since they think they can’t write about something about which they have no experience.

But, as a number of other writing tips sites have suggested, “write what you know” is about emotions and sensations rather than actual experiences. A writer should write about being scared, sorry, angry etc rather than try to re-create a place or time or situation they have never actually encountered.

The thing, is, I don’t think those sites go far enough. This is where affective memory comes in.

A person who has never lost a family member might find it hard to write about a family member dying in a story. How do they know the sense of loss and gut-wrenching sadness that such an event entails? How do they take their character through that experience if they’ve never done it themselves?

Here’s the problem: you have a great character on the boil, she’s rolling the story along at a fantastic pace, she’s funny and engaging, emotional and thrilling all at once. The readers are going to love her. You love her. “Why can’t I always write characters like this?” you think to yourself, as you slurp coffee and go along for the ride.

And then, in the course of the story, something happens that you have no experience about. And you – and the character – come up against a wall. How will she react in this situation? What would she do? You’ve never experienced this situation in real life, so you have no idea how anyone would behave. How do you “write what you know” now?

Affective memory is applying personal experiences to fictional situations. You, the writer, recall experiences that produced an emotional response at some time in your life and write about how you felt. If you have never experienced the death of a family member, you write your emotional responses to something that you have experienced. Maybe the loss of a pet, or how you felt when you broke up with a friend. Something – anything – that could produce a similar emotion. And write how that made you feel.

Actors and writers are different species. As I pointed out earlier, an actor on the screen usually has to worry about just one character. A writer has to worry about all the characters she creates, and make them real so the audience cares about them. So a writer has a harder job than the actor, in one sense. Using Objective/Obstacle, the Magic “If” and Affective Memory will aid the writer to make characters that are alive on the page.

Russell Proctor   www.russellproctor.com

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One thought on “A Different Way to Write Realistic Characters – Part 3: Affective Memory

  1. aubreyleaman says:

    Very interesting! What you say makes a lot of sense!

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