Enter character the Black Swan and Bruce Springsteen way

A writer needs to enter the characters in his novel. I’ve talked about this with other writers, but also found it useful to discuss it with artists from other fields. Two movies I saw in the last week, “Black Swan” and “The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town,” illustrate just why it’s so important.
“Black Swan” revolves around the dilemma facing Natalie Portman as a ballerina cast as both the White Swan and the Black Swan in “Swan Lake.” The White Swan is no problem for her – she’s virginal and precise. But the seductive Black Swan is beyond her – she can’t loosen up and seems to be going crazy in her subconscious determination not to do so. Her director tries to drive her beyond the mere dance steps necessary for the role. The cliché would be to say he wants her to inhabit the role. But actually he wants the role to inhabit her.
That’s what makes the movie so compelling to watch as an artist. Because that’s the way it has to be. A writer has to be invaded and driven by his character. The other way around is too shallow, too distanced.
For a dancer like Portman’s character, there’s only one way to make the movements of your body convey emotion, and that’s to experience the emotion. To dance the Black Swan, you have to be able to step forward and say, “I’m the bloody Black Swan, dammit,” and for it to be true.
It’s the same for a writer. In the moment of writing about a particular character, all the writer’s reactions must come directly from the connection between the writer and the emotion at the heart of what he’s writing. If I ever experience a weak connection or a break, I can tell immediately: the words don’t come; or the most obvious character reaction suggests itself and instantly feels false.
I’ve developed techniques for entering into the character. They involve meditation and “breathing” through the heart, rather than the head. It opens you directly to the necessary emotion.
But how to set a broader mood for writing? In other words, beyond the individual characters to the tone of the novel overall.
In writing MOZART’S LAST ARIA, my forthcoming historical novel about Mozart’s death, I talked with classical musicians about how they prepare to play. I needed to know this, so I could convey how Nannerl, Mozart’s sister, ought to approach the pieces she plays in the book. As it turned out, I discovered an interesting technique for my own writing.

Read the rest of this post on my blogThe Man of Twists and Turns.


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Comment by I. J. Parker on January 29, 2011 at 12:37am
Well, no.  You need to know what the other person is thinking in order to have him/her act believably for their situation -- which in turn causes the POV character to have to decide whether to believe the other person or not.  :)  It gets complicated.
Comment by Matt Rees on January 28, 2011 at 4:14pm
Though usually there'd only be one POV in a particular passage or chapter. So you only need to be inhabited by that one character. His/her assessment of what's going on in the others' heads is what we see of them.
Comment by I. J. Parker on January 28, 2011 at 1:11am
I'm not sure that putting myself into a certain mood helps me much. But I agree that you have to enter the POV character, and preferably some of the minor characters also. Given that a novel works not only with setting and atmosphere, but also with plot and dramatic dialogue (not to mention themes, if you're the kind of writer who uses them), getting into several people's heads at any given moment resembles juggling a large number of balls simultaneously.

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