There are lots of tools the great actor has in her toolbox, but most of them really only gain utility with time. Script analysis, the ability to quickly access one's emotions, physical flexibility, vocal projection, even memorizing lots and lots of text is a skill that can take years to learn.
But there is one tool that is pretty easy to use right out of the box: the character checklist. Exactly what it sounds like, the character checklist is a list of questions that, when answered thoughtfully, provide a wealth of information for the actor to draw from.
Writers stand to gain much from the character checklist as well. For the fiction writer, it's a terrific way to sketch out a full picture of the character in your mind before writing, or even (oh yes) when you find yourself stuck. Let's face it: most characters in fiction draw heavily on slices of the writer's self; it's nice to have a few other things to flesh them out into full-fledged bona fides themselves.
But another great use for the character checklist is to jump-start your own non-fiction writing. Bloggers have embraced the meme in a big way; it's everyone's favorite crutch when the well runs dry.
And pre-Web 2.0, the form was equally popular. From the emails that circulate with lists of likes, dislikes and quirky questions to fill in and forward on to the venerable Proust Questionnaire, people are endlessly fascinated with...themselves, yes, but other people, too. My favorite features in glossy magazines are usually the ones where the same five, 10 or 20 questions are asked of different people.
There are probably as many of these character checklists circulating among acting classes as there are memes proliferating across the blogosphere. I dug this one out of my old actor files, and it's as good a place as any to start:
The Character Checklist from Colleen's Old Acting Files (provenance unknown)
- Marital Status
- Favorite Color
- Favorite Restaurant
- Favorite Song
- Favorite Movie
- Favorite TV Show
- Bad Habit
- What I Like About Myself
- Who I Look Up To
- What Makes Me Laugh
- What Makes Me Sad
- How Do I Relax
- What Word/Phrase Do I Use Most Often
- Favorite Room In Home
- Embarrassing Moment
- Favorite Article Of Clothing
- Pet Peeve
- People Close To Me
- One Word To Describe Me
- Favorite Holiday
- What Is Important To Me
- What I Can't Do Without
The trick to making lists like these useful to your writing (and there's always a trick) is using them thoughtfully and strategically, not just indulging in them as diversions (although that can be fun sometimes, too). Figure out the task you're wanting to accomplish and then pick up your tool. Not all of the items will be useful for every piece of writing you're sitting down to work on, but a surprising number will be, if you let mind wander to new and interesting places.
For example, let's say you've got a blog edumacating people about widgets and you are plumb out of widget stuff to write about. You could...
- Talk about how people shorten the life of their widgets with bad widget habits. (#12)
- Describe your favorite widget use, and why. (#28)
- Relate a horror story about a customer being widget-less in a widget-necessary situation. (#21)
- Interview a few people in the widget chain of supply. (#24)
- Link to your favorite widget scene in a movie on YouTube. (#9)
There's no set way to put yourself in a frame of mind to see questions differently so that you can answer them differently, but one great trick is to imagine yourself sitting down with someone who knows nothing about widgets, or who thinks they know everything about widgets, and then look at those questions as though you're being interviewed for a show or podcast or magazine that goes out to that target.
In other words, playact...like an actor!
P.S. If you give this a whirl, I'd love to hear how it works for you: communicatrix [at] gmail [dot] com.
This post gets a lot of traffic from StumbleUpon. Go figure. Anyway, if you clicked looking to find posts about acting, there are a ton of them here, two years' worth of columns written for a major casting service's newsletter here in L.A. And if you're looking for more tips on writing and how to make it more awesome and less awful, check out the back issues of my non-sucky (I swear!) newsletter. Back to you, Chet!