by Jill Williamson
In her book, Getting into Character, Brandilyn Collins has a chapter on what she calls emotional memory. This concept will help you learn to write emotions for your character that you've never actually experienced by using a combination of acting techniques and comparisons from your own life.
Director Richard Boleslavsky suggests that "anyone who has lived a normal existence has experienced to some extent all the emotions of mankind."
That's a pretty bold statement. I decided to give it a try.
I've never been threatened at gunpoint. But as I search for a similar emotion—fear for my life—I've had a few moments on the road where I thought I'd crash. One time our tires hydroplaned on the freeway and we slid into the grassy median at 65 miles an hour. It was a good three seconds of horrifying fear. I recall the heat that flashed through me, how my breathing seemed to stop, how I screamed (I'm not a screamer), and how, once the tires got traction again, the amazing relief that this wasn't the end of my life.
Interesting. I could use that.
My husband has never cheated on me. But there was this woman at exercise class who flirted with him. And, I'm ashamed to say, I hated that woman. Every time she looked at my husband or made a joke with him or smiled at him, I wanted to break her face. (I am not a violent person.) I became an insecure creature when she was in the room, questioning everything, completely irrational, daydreaming the worst. I knew where she lived. I knew what kind of car she drove. Every time we drove into the parking lot at exercise class, I'd be on high alert for that car. If it wasn't there, I was happy. Content. Worry free. If it was, look out world.
Yeah... I could totally use that.
No one has ever broken into my home. But I heard a noise once. We all have. But this time I stopped moving, held my breath and listened. I was imagining it, of course, I always was. Until I heard the front screen door wheeze shut and slam.
Then the screen door banged again, I lifted the knife, staring at the entrance way...
And my son came running inside the house. At midnight! He's eleven!
"Daddy's home!" he said, smiling.
"You scared me half to death," I told him. "Look, I have a knife in my hand to kill you with."
He laughed, thinking that was pretty funny. Little punk, anyway. :-)
So, clearly I could use that.
But it can't work for everything, right? I mean, most of us have never committed murder.
Well, I have.
I entered the bathroom. I shut the door and revealed the most massive spider you've ever seen. (What is it about spiders, anyway? They're little. We're big. I just don't get why they freak me out so much.)
Sadly, no one heard me. I was on the other side of the house, and to them, it was a mere mumble. Good think no one was really trying to kill me... But I experienced it all. I saw the creature. The fear and revolt overwhelmed. I never once considered letting it live. No, it needed to die. It had to. And when I hit it, it was with the intent to get it hard enough so that I wouldn't have to hit it twice. Laugh, if you want, but there was a lot of emotion there. And whenever I see that shampoo bottle, I think if that creature.
I wanted it dead, and I can use that.
Need to portray first love? Think back to your first crush, or a time when a cute person spoke to you or got close enough for your stomach to flip. And if that's never happened, surely you've read a book or seen a movie that gave you such an emotion. Use it.
And from now on, when you experience life, remember. Take note of the feelings in your body, the smells, the sounds, what does it look like? What do you notice? When I came into the living room with the knife, it was dark out the front window and raining. The streetlamp made a glare on the road out front. I couldn't see anything.
The spider was big, its legs continually sprawling toward me faster than I wanted it to. I was defenseless, I tell you. It was him or me!
That woman. The smell of her perfume, the way she did her hair, that car. When I smell or see things that remind me of her, the emotion all comes back at once.
So put on an actor's hat when you come to a troublesome scene. Search your life for the closest thing you've got and remember. Write out what you felt, saw, smelled, tasted, heard. Then put yourself in your character's shoes and life through his situation and see what you come up with.
Think I've missed an important one? Let me know and I'll give it my best shot in finding a comparison.