This past week I saw the Paul Thomas Anderson movie Phantom Thread starring Daniel Day-Lewis in his last role. As I wrote here, he has retired from acting. Seeing the movie now, after months of getting used to the idea that it will be his last, left me sad but also energized and amazed by his work, as well as the other actors and the movie itself. Seeing artists like these at work inspires me. And Day-Lewis is a special inspiration — the way he approaches character and character development — for my writing and being a writer.
I find often that when I’m stuck with my writing, watching a good movie with good actors can rattle my imagination’s doors and windows. What is it that the actors do to establish the character? And how do they sustain the character? What actors do is what writers do in creating and developing characters. Paying attention to actors when they’re acting can be very helpful to fiction writers.
There are two areas of a character’s physical existence that both actors and writers pay attention to. The first is physical appearance. What does the character look like? What is his hair color and style? Height? Weight? What kinds of clothes does the character wear? Does this change over the course of the story? I remember at one point when working on a draft of Perceval’s Secret, I decided to let Evan Quinn “go to seed,” i.e. he stops shaving, stops going to a barber, stops paying attention to his grooming to reflect his extreme focus on his work. But then he becomes interested in disguise and how it can help him lead a normal life — another aspect of physical appearance. Clothing can reveal character with respect to its style. Someone (like Evan Quinn) who prefers to wear jeans and a T-shirt with sneakers is not the same as someone who wears chinos, an Oxford shirt, and loafers. When we walk down a street, we notice what other people are wearing and make conclusions about them based on their fashion choices. So readers will notice when a writer makes note of a character’s clothing. Also, is the character comfortable without clothing? Does he have scars, tattoos, birthmarks?
The second physical aspect is movement, i.e. gestures, facial expressions, how a character stands (ramrod straight or slouched?), how a character walks. The actor Paul Newman had a distinctive walk that he used at times for a character he was playing, and sometimes not. Does the character walk fast, slow, with long strides or short? Do the toes point out? Maybe the character limps. Or maybe the character has a facial tic or a distinctive gesture. Some characters talk with their hands, as people do in real life, and others do not. Gesture can be a very subtle thing, but if it’s consistent, it can also reveal character.
What does the character’s voice sound like? Does she lisp or stutter? Perhaps she speaks with a foreign accent? Perhaps she’s a real chatterbox compared with someone more laconic. How a character speaks in any given situation reveals the characters emotions as well as thoughts. A writer puts the words in a character’s mouth, or ideally, the character simply speaks as the writer listens and records. An actor will have what’s in the script (which may or may not be written in stone — in theater it tends to be, but not so much for movies), and there’ll be a collaboration between actor and director on how those lines will be spoken. I remember seeing an interview with Anthony Hopkins talking about how he created Hannibal Lecter for The Silence of the Lambs. He commented that the key for him into the character was Lecter’s voice and manner of speaking. Once he heard that in his mind and could do it, he had Lecter. How a character speaks should not be underestimated as a key character trait. How a character uses language reveals intelligence level and emotion.
What a character does for a living can be a method of self expression and another path to reveal the character. In this interview in W, Daniel Day-Lewis talks about the preparations he made, the research he did, to play Reynolds Woodcock, the couture fashion designer in Phantom Thread. Writers will (and should) do similar research into the occupations of their characters in order to insure their characters behave in a plausible way for the occupations. So, with Evan Quinn, an orchestra conductor, I researched orchestra conductors — how they live, work, travel, and see their work. An orchestra conductor will have a different life compared with a plumber or businessman, or a fashion designer. Knowing how a character acts while working adds authenticity to the character in the viewer’s or reader’s eyes.
So, when I need some inspiration for character creation and development, I turn to fine actors who have helped me in the past, such as Daniel Day-Lewis. Who do you turn to?