Writing and Acting

As a writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about how people feel and express emotion. When I’m writing a novel, it’s my goal to describe emotion from the inside and outside: the way a character’s mind and physical body reacts to their feelings and the way they look outwardly so that others can perceive those feelings.

I was an actor for the briefest of moments: six years in middle school and high school. I have a tiny bit of experience when it comes to what it feels like to act out emotions, but I have a lot more experience writing them. I’ve (somewhat obsessively) studied how emotions are felt and how they’re portrayed. My favorite TV shows and movies are ones where I can get some new insight into how an actor conveys how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking.

Okay, so here’s the thing: sometimes I have these ephiphanies that are blindingly obvious to everyone else. And I think this is one of them XD

Being a writer, I carefully consider how to describe a character to convey what they’re feeling. If a character I’m writing is angry, how does she feel from the inside? Does tension rise up the back of her neck? Is there a blocked, hot feeling in her chest? A sense of helplessness? And how does she look from the outside? Are her fists clenched, or her jaw? Is she trembling? Are her eyes wide or narrowed?

I always assumed actors did the same thing. I imagined an actor thinking out how best to convey the feeling of her character, including body language and voice and expression down to the smallest twitch of a muscle. That’s what I would do. (That might mean I’d make a lousy actor XD)

So I just finished watching the third season of TURN: Washington’s Spies. If you like American history (and seriously, even if you don’t!) give this series a try–it’s freaking incredible. I love every damn minute of it. Jamie Bell plays the main character, and his spellbinding acting is what brought on this epiphany.

I’m trying to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, but there’s a part in the first season when his character is in a very traumatic situation, the kind that forever changes how he sees himself. As I’m watching, I’m captivated and stunned: it looks like Jamie Bell is literally hyperventilating.

And then I realized that he probably is. And maybe that’s how some actors do it. Instead of saying to themselves “How should I look in order to portray how I’m feeling?” they just feel it, and the portrayal is perfect. This blew my mind.

I mean, it’s not like I’ve never heard of method acting. It’s not like I haven’t listened to hours of actor commentaries on my favorite movies. I know that some actors feel their characters’ emotions acutely. But somehow it never hit me that I was making that assumption about how they approached acting, and that my assumption was linked to being a writer.

In other words, I learn something new that helps my writing every day… And go watch TURN XD


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