Welcome to another series within my blog!
I have my 100 Objects series where I examine what different objects mean to me and how they have inspired my life.
Here, in this series, I will be looking at something I learned about during my years of acting training. A system developed by well-known theatre practitioner Constantin Stanislavski called ‘Emotional Memory’ and the ‘Magic If’.
If you have studied drama, you’ll have spent many hours learning about and writing endless essays on Stanislavski (or Stan as he was affectionately known). However, I am not going to assume my readers are savvy with the movers and shakers in early twentieth century drama engineers, so I’ll give a bit of background.
Stanislavski was essentially in my view, someone who wanted to make dramatic performance realistic. He didn’t want the audience to be served anything less than the full-on brilliance of an emotional sucker-punch.
Everything had to be realistic. The sets, costumes and of course, the emotions involved.
He was a big fan of realism and the concept of the fourth wall. He felt that the audience were flies on the wall, watching real situation unfold – drawing them into the story.
I think Stan has hit on something that doesn’t just stand for how a play should be performed, but also how a story should be developed.
As writers, we can sit there seriously scratching our heads in trying to figure out the emotions and motivations of our characters. We may be creating pretend people on the page, but they are as real as your own experiences and feelings.
Plundering the depths of our emotional memory can help us bring some believability to our stories.
It’s not all about just having the right words in the right order, it is about having the right feelings in the right place.
So what do you do? Where do you go?
How can the grief of losing your own specific loved one, transfer over to the creation of a character grieving theirs?
This is where we wheel out the ‘magic if’.
This whole area revolves (according to my foggy understanding, it has been 10 years since I studied this!) around the idea of essentially sitting there and trying to empathise with a character.
This concept is essentially where you inject yourself into the character. You ask yourself questions such as ‘what would I do?’ or ‘how would I feel’ in any given situation.
You know that Othello is fighting against the earworm of Iago’s putrid lies – how do you quantify that? How does that play out?
He’s going to be angry. Very, very angry. So, think of a time when you have felt anger that you have just about controlled (of course, in the end, Othello doesn’t).
He feels betrayed. So go off into yourself and remember a time or a moment when you have felt betrayed by someone you love. Remember each nuance of feeling. Explore the experience moment by moment and remind yourself of the back-story to it.
Don’t dwell on it though. Try and package up your emotions and experiences if you can, so that they are just photos in a box that you can put back under the bed of your life.
This ride on the human experience express hasn’t been in vain when you are creating characters. You are proudly and amply furnished with examples right the way through your life that advertise in huge neon writing all the things you need to know and remember.
Emotions are not cut and dry though.
You can’t just say ‘love’ and that is that. There are different loves out there and each one is fluid and multi-faceted like a gorgeous jewel.
There’s the love you have for your children, siblings, parents, grandparents, pets, objects, places, feelings, sounds, your first love, your forever love – to name but a few.
I want to tease out some of my own emotional experiences as examples to see what we can learn. There will be many a nugget of pliable emotional memory for me to use and apply then to the ‘magic if’ formula.
I hope you enjoy the series and even try to do this yourself to help you open up a character a bit more.