Get That To-The-Bone Feel For Your Characters

by James Scott Bell

Some years ago, Kill Zone emeritus Robert Gregory Browne wrote this:

If my lead character is a divorced father of three who finds himself unwittingly involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the government, the first thing I ask myself when approaching a scene (even though I’m happily married and wouldn’t know a conspiracy if it jumped up and bit me) is this: how would I react in this situation?

Then I add the color (read: attitude/emotion). How would I react, if… I was a self-centered bastard… a no-nonsense cop… an officious political hack. And I apply this technique to every character I write.

In short, I’m like a method actor playing all of the parts. By using myself and a healthy dose of imagination, I can approach characterization from the inside out. And once I’m able to get into the skin of my characters, it’s much, much easier to create someone whom I, and hopefully the audience, can identify with.

As a former thespian myself, I’ve used (and teach) acting prep techniques for writers. This is the simplest, and perhaps the best one: first, be yourself.

Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous (1937)

That is the sum and substance of the philosophy my favorite actor of all time, Spencer Tracy, used. He didn’t go for any of the fancy schools of method acting. He said he always started by imagining what it would feel like if he were a taxi driver….or a priest….or a Portuguese fisherman. That gave him attitude and emotion. From there it was just a matter of knowing his lines and listening to the other actors.

Back when I was lawyering I edited a little newsletter called Trial Excellence. It was a monthly dedicated to the lawyers who actually go to court and present cases in front of juries. In that role I had the opportunity to interview some of the top trial lawyers in the country. One of them was Don C. Keenan, who told me:

My rule of thumb is that I feel very strongly that the plaintiff’s lawyer, to be successful with the jury, you literally have to make the jury walk a mile in your client’s moccasins. They cannot be spectators. They cannot view their role as being a referee or a mediator. They literally have to fully understand and feel—and by feel, I mean, to-the-bone feel—what your client feels. So they then become an advocate in the jury room for you and not just some referee. As such, the only way that you can get strangers to walk a mile in your client’s moccasins is by you, the lawyer, not only walking a mile in the client’s moccasins, but sleeping in the same house, and washing the dishes, and going to the doctor’s visits with them, and living it with them. I’m a fanatic when it comes to up close and personal with your client.

I like that: to-the-bone feel. Spend time imagining yourself in your characters’ world, watching and listening to them, even being them. Do this until you feel your character in your very bones. Put that on the page and your readers will become participants, not just spectators.

What do you do to get that to-the-bone feeling for your characters?

NOTE: This post is adapted from my upcoming book Power Up Your Fiction (available for preorder). In other news, the book was kindly mentioned in The Saturday Evening Post!