Updated: Mar 3, 2020
Method writing is the most misunderstood piece of writing advice known to mankind. Most people hear this and interpret it as ‘write what you know’. Others think they have to be an expert in a specific field--or research enough to make themselves a pseudo-expert--in order to fuel their written work. Still others interpret it as ‘I must have experienced the exact same thing as my character in order to make my novel realistic’.
For instance, author Thomas W. Hodgkinson wrote a novel called Memoirs of a Stalker. His main character hides in his ex-girlfriend’s apartment, essentially living in odd spaces--such as cupboards and closets--without her knowing, for months at a time. In an interview with BBC News, he revealed that he wrote the bulk of the novel while lying on his back in one of the cupboards in his own home. There wasn’t even enough room to bring a laptop, so he had to tap out his rough draft in the notes section of his mobile phone.
But...that’s what “method writing” is, right? Putting yourself in the same positions/situations/experiences as your characters, so you can really immerse yourself in your draft? Arming yourself with knowledge so that you can accurately depict actions or scenes for your readers? At its core, this means that it’s not so different from method acting, right?
Well...not really, according to Professor Sarah Churchwell of the University of London:
“This idea is not different in kind to the way most authors write, it's just different in degree. Writing is always an immersive, imaginative experience. As a writer, you do live inside the heads of your characters and the world you've created. Rather than locking themselves literally in a closet, most writers just mentally immerse themselves in a certain realm, whether fictional or historical.”
This means, of course, that you don’t have to lock yourself in a library so you can become an expert in swordplay, if your character is into fencing (although, a little research could go a long way in learning the basics of what you mean to discuss if you don’t have experience in a specific subject); nor does this mean you need to rappel down from a helicopter into the middle of the Amazon, if your main character is an Indiana-Jones-Lara-Croft-type of adventurer. But if you can get deep enough into the head of your own character, you can draw on empathetic experience to flesh out your story.
What does this even mean (I can hear you imploring); what is ‘empathetic experience’? It’s simply knowledge from your everyday life that can make your characters or situations more compelling. For instance, if a character that you are writing experiences the pain of loss with the death of a loved one,you don’t necessarily have to have lost someone in your own life. If you have experienced the loss of something important to you--a dear friendship, a breakup, or Ben and Jerry discontinuing your favorite ice cream flavor--you can extrapolate some of those same feelings to make your character’s loss more palpable and more realistic for your audience.
Thinking of it another way: if you are writing a crime novel, and you need to write about a character experiencing the pain of being stabbed with a knife, you don’t need to go around stabbing people, or hire someone to stab you. (No, seriously, don’t do that.) But if you’ve ever accidentally cut yourself while preparing a meal, you have some information to extrapolate for your novel. You don’t know EXACTLY what it means to be stabbed, but because you’ve cut yourself on accident, you have empathetic experience that you can base the character’s experience on.
Still confused? Think of it this way: method acting is similar to method writing because the core is all about analogy. You may not have killed anyone (I hope!), but perhaps you’ve been so angry about something that you’ve felt that rage become all-consuming. (Like when Ben and Jerry did away with Vermonty Python. It’s been years, and I’m still not over it...curse you, ice cream moguls!) You can tap into that memory, that emotion, and voila, you can understand when your character has homicidal tendencies. Then, you can write the scene convincingly enough that it will feel real and believable to your audience.
One more note before I go: there is a famous story about the amazing actors Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman. Olivier was not impressed with Hoffman’s acting; when he heard that Hoffman had avoided sleep before filming, so that he could truly experience his character’s exhaustion in front of the cameras, Olivier remarked to Hoffman, ‘my dear boy, why don’t you try acting?’
So, then...tap into your emotion, understand empathetically where your character’s motivations are coming from, and then (to paraphrase Mr Olivier), why don’t you try writing?
About the Author: Once upon a time, Emily was introduced to the works of Stephen King. She became intrigued by the fact that ink and paper and imagination could be combined to create monsters that haunted her dreams. A passion for the written word was born. She first started dabbling in writing by penning fanfiction; but with the help of various English teachers, she branched out into more contemporary, original pieces.
Emily is currently pursuing a degree in Writing. She lives in Michigan with her husband and three small children. In those rare moments where she is not writing, she can be found taking pictures of her family, going on adventures around the state, knitting, or reading with a hot cup of coffee in hand. She has recently embarked on a quest to read some of the greatest literature known to man. Emily has just finished Infinite Jest, and realizes that her TBR pile is now much larger than she would like to admit.