by Warner Loughlin
An actor’s greatest desire is to so fully embrace a character, that he transports the audience into a magical realm of make believe. The ability to convincingly do that is what separates the good actors from the great actors. They take us on a magical journey. Just how do actors do that? While it may look like an elusive art, there is a tangible and real way that you, as a writer, can achieve the same thing.
It all starts with character. You may have the most intriguing story ever printed on a page, but ultimately we will care about the story because we care about the players in it. We are caught up in the emotional journey of the character, and want to see him/her succeed triumphantly, fail miserably or overcome adversity, etc. In essence, we want to take that roller coaster of a journey. In order to do that, you the writer must first create that journey of the character.
A backstory for your character is imperative, but understanding the nuances of the emotional journey of your character is essential. It elevates your writing to unprecedented levels and separates your work from the next guy’s. Without the emotional component, your backstory stands the chance of having superfluous or predictable events crafted only to serve the narrative. So start with character first, understand him, know him, feel what he feels, and then put him in the circumstances of the scene.
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You’ll benefit from starting your backstory in early childhood. It is here that we form our earliest perceptions of the world. These early perceptions can live with us through a lifetime. In real life we are greatly influenced by many factors such as parents, sibling, friends, socioeconomic levels, education and so forth. Keeping those factors in mind, try starting your backstory with a single formative event in the character’s young life.
This all-important event in the character’s young life doesn’t necessarily have to be a tragic one. It is however, an event that leaves a lasting impression; one that had a significant emotional impact. As human beings, we store memories according to that which we see, touch, hear, smell or feel. And we can recall them from such a distant time because they had significant emotional resonance. When we recall them in great detail, we sometimes feel the emotion of that day all over again. You likely don’t remember what happened, say, last February 10th. Unless of course it was someone’s birthday or something memorable happened on that day. But you can recall childhood events, both innocent and traumatic, because they had an emotional impact on you.
Thinking about your own life for a second, give it a try. Close your eyes and see if you can recall your earliest memory in childhood. The first one that pops into your head. Maybe you remember where you were, who you were with, and what circumstances surrounded this event. You will remember specifics such as what you were wearing, or eating or any other number of details, if and only if, these were of emotional significance at the time. Now thinking of that event and the emotion surrounding it, ask yourself, “Does it have any significance in my life today? Does it have anything to do with how I behave as an adult?” If you answered ‘no’ then think a little while longer.
This impactful event caused what I like to call the Base Human Emotion. It is the overwhelming, overriding emotion—caused by an event in the character’s life, at a very early age—that causes the character to interpret and perceive the world in a specific and unique way. The Base Human Emotion is the springboard of sorts. It becomes the filter and the lens in which the character perceives the world and is the emotional thread that runs throughout his lifetime.
Think of Base Human Emotions in terms of “Fears” or “Needs.” There are literally hundreds of possibilities, but some examples are: “
- Need to Matter
- Need to Be Seen for who I Truly Am
- Need to Protect
- Need to Connect
- Fear of Not Being Enough
- Fear of Conflict
- Fear of Vulnerability
- Fear of Abandonment
What specific event may have happened to the character in early childhood that could have had such an emotional impact on him that he then perceived the world in a unique and specific way?
If he’s the rebel that never met a rule he liked, ask why? What childhood event may have made him that way? Perhaps as a child, his parents were unusually strict. He felt he had no power over his own life. As an adult, he is determined to live by his own rules, and no one else’s. How about the underdog who rose up out of adversity against all odds? What made him or her that way? Was he from a poverty stricken family and bullied because of it? And therefore was determined to succeed in life? Is your character a loner who shies away from any long lasting commitment? What event may have been the springboard? Could it be that as a child he dealt with the Fear of Abandonment? So as an adult, he/she avoids commitment so as to never again experience the pain of abandonment?
Once the Base Human Emotion is established, a domino effect occurs as we advance in age. For example, the child who begins his emotional journey with a Fear of Not Being Enough may seek to excel above all others, so the Need to Succeed becomes his focus. With that dire need it’s quite possible he could begin to feel a Fear of Failure or even a Need to Please. Where your character’s emotional journey goes is up to your wild and creative imagination.
We are all creatures of habit, repeating patterns of behavior over and over again. Many times we are seeking to either repeat or to repair our Base Human Emotion. The child who has a Fear of Abandonment may choose partners in adult life who will surely abandon him. He is seeking to repeat the Base Human Emotion so as to confirm that what he’s believes about himself is true. Conversely, he may choose a partner in life that would never leave him under any circumstances (for reasons both good and bad), thereby attempting to repair his Base Human Emotion.
When you see a character explosively angry, excessively hurt or provoked in some way, chances are his Base Human Emotion has been tweaked or prodded. You’ll also find that in friendships and particularly in romantic relationships, two people will often come together because they soothe each other’s Base Human Emotion. For example, someone dealing with a Fear of Abandonment might join up with someone who has a Need to Connect. However when one or both withdraw that commitment, or cease soothing it altogether, the relationship suffers and sometimes ends.
Consider the common saying (often attributed to Mark Twain): “Knowledge without experience is just information.” While the detailed information about your character is good, and necessary, you can take it a step further with Emotion with Detail. It’s what many great actors do in order to truly feel what the character feels.
Start with investigating the event that informed the character’s Base Human Emotion. Sitting in a quiet, comfortable place with your eyes closed, let your imagination fly. See yourself as the character at a very young age. This is not your personal childhood experience, this is your character’s. So avoid using locations that are exact replications of your own childhood experiences. Place yourself (the character) in a specific location – perhaps the child’s bedroom. Remember you’re looking at the world through very young and ‘innocent to the world’ eyes. Speaking out loud, in first person, describe in detail everything in the room that you see. Give objects, posters, rugs, etc., an emotional reason to exist. For example, “The rug on the floor is round; it’s a rag rug of colors - blue, brown, green. It belonged to my sister, but she hated it, so my parents bought her a new one and she gave this one to me. I hate it too.” That kind of detail gives objects an emotional reason to exist and will ground you in the moment.
Now incorporate as many of your senses as possible. What do you smell, feel, hear or perhaps taste? Keep inventing. Allow an event to unfold that caused your character to form his/her Base Human Emotion. Continue Emotion with Detail, inventing all the emotionally pertinent events throughout your character’s life until the present moment at hand.
With this deep and emotional knowledge you will create texture and nuance within your character. You will know him so deeply and completely that you’ll show the reader through his behavior just who he is, rather than telling us. You’ll take us on that emotional wild ride that draws us in, hooks us and keeps us wanting more.
For over 20 years Warner Loughlin has been a teacher and coach to Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe, Tony and Grammy winners and nominees. Known for her warmth and intuitive approach, her technique shatters the myth that an actor's past emotional traumas must be the fuel or foundation for their work. Warner’s technique is imaginative, practical and psychologically deep, giving actors a safe and effective way to access emotion and create extremely nuanced and unique performances. Warner studied Contemporary Literature and Shakespeare at Oxford University and received her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She now lives in Los Angeles, CA with her family. Visit her at www.warnerloughlin.com.
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