My wife sent me a link a couple of weeks ago from the Independent to an article by the columnist Thomas W Hodgkinson. It discussed (half-seriously, half-humorously) the introduction of a new movement in writing: the Method Writers. Following along the same lines as Method Acting, the writer would try to duplicate as closely as possible the environment and behaviors of their main character. While I have not seriously considered trying to undergo this process, I have nonetheless pondered its validity.
I believe that writers naturally delve into their characters without artificially inflating it to be life-consuming. I routinely put myself into the character’s place and their mind, imagining how they would act or react, how they feel and what they would say. Actors have a script they interpret; writers create their own script. I would say that anyone writing fiction, even if it’s firmly based in real world events and a real world environment, is doing so entirely within the confines of their imagination – that’s how writing works. That means that you’re imagining how the characters act and that requires you also imagine how they think, who they are, what makes them have the personalities they possess. I feel that this is inseparable from the act of writing fiction. Even biographers must extrapolate historical data to some degree, adding this personal letter or written passage to that verbal account and painting a realistic picture of their subject.
That’s not to say that immersing yourself more fully in the genre that your work falls within or – better yet any type of subculture that your work appeals to – is not important. Indeed, putting yourself in the minds of your reader is key to understanding what they are seeking in your work. Not only does it give you a greater appreciation for your audience and their needs and wants but also can help your enrich your own appreciation for the genre you write in. For instance, my first series of novels – the Shattered Clockwork Saga – falls well within the steampunk genre; except where it didn’t. While I termed it steampunk, it missed some of the hallmark traits of the genre at first, such as the aspirational quality found in most steampunk works. It was really just a novel with a Victorian-industrial-dystopic world. It was ‘steampunk’ without being Steampunk. So, I immersed myself in the culture more, built upon my appreciation and understanding of my reader would be and what they do and even have a couple of scratch-build and DIY projects planned. I placed myself not in the mind of my characters per se, but in the minds and hearts of the people who will come to love them.
Another valid use for immersion would be for researching the world you are writing in, even if it’s an imaginary world. Star Trek as a subgenre of science fiction is an excellent example of this. Nearly everything in that world is imaginary. However, after decades of movies, television shows and novels, there is a library of scientific and technical documentation that would rival the USAF. It’s all made up, but it’s so detailed and precise that it might as well be real, and in some cases now is real. Knowing your genre and researching is guaranteed to make your world feel more real. While there is no such thing as steampunk airships in the real world, I researched real-life seabound equivalencies so that my descriptions of aerial battles and shipboard environments would be both deep and consistent.
While the concept of Method Writing is an interesting one, I believe that treating it as something unique or better than the ‘normal’ method of writing is ‘gilding the lily’ somewhat. I could not image writing without delving into my characters, their environment and the minds of my readers. That’s nothing special; that’s just writing with purpose, focusing on my craft and the world I’m creating. To paraphrase Laurence Olivier’s gentle admonishment of Dustin Hoffman’s trouble with method acting in the movie Marathon Man: “My dear boy, why don’t you just try writing?”