A Lesson in Character Building

by Gayle Bartos-Pool

 

PeopleWhen I first moved to Sunny Southern California in the early Seventies, I decided I should take acting lessons. Not that I thought of taking Hollywood by storm, after all, I was no glamour girl or even thought I had any latent acting ability.

 

Trish StewartMy only claim to fame by that time was playing Girl Number Two in a high school production of Sabrina Fair. I had maybe two lines, but I did get a few laughs when my character had to feign a headache to make another character think that was why me and the Boyfriend, another minor character, were out on the patio getting some fresh air. I guess I did the funny bit of business well enough to get a chuckle from the audience. As for the girl who played Sabrina, Trish Stewart went on to an acting career in Hollywood. She was in the short-lived TV show with Andy Griffith called Salvage 1 and a recurring role on The Young and the Restless.

But a television career wasn’t why I wanted to take acting lessons. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to know what writers needed to learn about writing dialogue and thought acting lessons would give me an insight into all those words actors should be saying on stage and on the screen.

I got an agent, a job… and a life lesson. I saw an ad in the newspaper about an exclusive acting class being taught by a couple of people from Hollywood. I use the term “exclusive” because the class cost money. It was several hundred dollars, so I thought it was going to be really good. Well, one of the guys who was to run this class ran off with the money. Many people were screwed. The other partner who was as surprised, if not as screwed, as the rest of us, took pity on little ol’ me and asked if I would like to be the nanny cum housekeeper for him, his wife, and his four kids. I needed a job, so I said yes.

This guy was a talent agent. A real one. One of his clients had been Agnes Moorehead. Another client was James MacArthur. I actually met James when he flew into Hollywood from his gig in Hawaii doing Hawaii 5-0. James kept his little sports car in my boss’s barn on their property in Encino. His battery was dead, so he asked if he could borrow my little VW and go get one. I tossed him the keys and went back to my nanny/housekeeper duties. Their house was always a mess, so the three days a week I worked over there I tidied up and played with the young kids, all of whom were pre-school or in elementary school.

Bruce GloverDuring the nine months I worked for him, he got me into an acting class. The first class was taught by Bruce Glover. Old Bruce has been in a bunch of movies like Diamonds Are Forever and Chinatown and just about every TV series during his forty-year plus career. Something you might notice when he is in a movie is the fact that he makes sure he is either somewhere in the background of any scene even if he isn’t the guy doing the talking or while doing his scene he makes the most of it. In that I mean he is always doing some bit of business to capture the attention of the viewer. Sometimes the director will yell “Cut” and stop the attention grabbing, but many times that little extra shtick is the cherry on top of a scene.

And what does this have to do with writing, you may ask? It’s just this: Sometimes the writer needs to make a minor character more interesting by giving him or her a quirk, a trait, a personality. They don’t have to stay on the page or the screen all that long, but isn’t it fun to read or see a character who isn’t cardboard?

I still use that little trick I learned from Bruce about instilling a few minor characters with some unique trait just to make them more interesting and memorable. In fact, there are several characters that started out in a minor role who ended up with a much bigger part. Bruce would get a kick out of that fact, because he often said that “extra bit of business” might lead to an expanded role.

In the opening of my novel Caverns, the policeman who discovers the first body mauled by large rats in underground Chicago was to be a minor character if not just a “walk-on,” but I liked him so much he became one of the leads. In Hedge Bet I had originally picked one character to be the guilty party, but then I thought her character had only limited depth. This other character had far more opportunity for mayhem because he kept turning up in all the right places, so his part was expanded and he even had the original suspect bumped off.

In my Johnny Casino Series, I introduced an aging actress in one of the first short stories in the first book. I liked her so much, she kept coming back along with her butler who had a past to die for, so he turned into a charming regular, too. See, there are no small parts. Those little traits we write into our characters end up with a life of their own.

Rudy SolariThat brings me to the second acting class I took. The talent agent I was working for thought I might like to try another class taught by a couple of guys he admired. The guys were Rudy Solari and Guy Stockwell. Rudy starred in Garrison’s Gorillas. As for Guy Stockwell, he guested in just about every TV series there was for decades.

I have mentioned in other articles how Rudy had us actors write a biography of the character we were playing so we had an idea who our character was before we stepped onto the stage. You would have to make this stuff up, but the script gave you a lot of information and the genre of the piece would give you more parameters. To this day I write a biography of my main character and sketches of other people in a story. This will help you remember who everybody is, how they look, their age, and important details that you might need later. You don’t want “John” twenty-five years old on page 34 with blue eyes to turn into “John” forty-five years old on page 76 with brown eyes. It keeps you on track and if you bring the character back in a sequel you don’t have to read your first book to acquaint yourself with those facts.

But something else was gleaned from Rudy’s class. Improv. There is nothing like your acting teacher asking you to get up on that stage and do a scene with another actor with only a few words describing the scene. The one scene I remember doing was when another actor and I were to be an abusive husband and the long-suffering wife having a conversation. “She could kill him” was my prompt.

I started out playing the meek wife taking his abuse, but I kept countering his jibes with subtle remarks. When the scene was over and Rudy said “Stop,” he walked over to me and asked what I had in my hand. I had taken a piece of paper with me to the stage. It was probably what I wrote notes on, but it was in my hand, but as Rudy noted it had been folded and folded until it looked a bit like a knife. I hadn’t realized exactly doing it, but my character sure did. Scary? Maybe. But characters do have a life of their own. Give them free reign and see what they come up with.

The other interesting time in acting class was when my good friend and fellow actor, Karen Markham, and I were doing a scene from The Odd Couple. Let me digress for just a second and tell you a story or two. It’s relevant.

Rudy thought it might be interesting to have women play the lead in that play and later movie and even later a fabulous TV series written originally by Neil Simon. Rudy asked Karen and I to do a scene from the play. We christened Karen’s role as Esther (Oscar) and I played Felicia (Felix). We did one of the earlier scenes in the play. We rehearsed quite a bit and thought we had the roles down, but you know actors. Digging deeper into a role is always better.

We decided we should take the act “on the road.” That meant that we would go someplace “in character” and see how we did. There was a bar fairly close to where the acting class was, so we went there after class one night. It was a hangout for actors and stuntmen called The Drawing Board. We went in, Karen as the men-loving gal who always had a smart remark and me as the meek, penny-pinching woman who found dirt everywhere.

Harvey WallbangerI ordered a Harvey Wallbanger. (You aren’t the only one who liked them, Paul D. Marks.) Before the bartender set it down, I cleaned the spot in front of me. I complained openly about Esther making a spectacle of herself and Karen gave it back to me in spades. When the bartender told me how much my drink was, I gasped at the high price and said that I wasn’t buying drinks for the entire bar. Karen told me I was a penny-pinching old maid. The bartender laughed and then said, “Talk about the odd couple.”

Well, I broke character and laughed. Several of the guys around us took notice and I confessed that we were actors rehearsing our characters for Rudy Solari’s acting class. They got a kick out of it. Oh, and I didn’t have to pay for the drink. Don Stroud, the actor who starred in The New Mike Hammer and a million other TV shows, picked up the tab for Karen, and stuntman Paul Nuckles bought mine. We never had to pay for a drink in the place after that. Nice guys.

Guy StockwellSo back to my original point. Karen and I knew our roles. We knew the characters. We did the scene for Guy Stockwell one evening at the acting studio and he liked it, then he asked how well we knew the scene and did we know each other’s part? Yes. Next he said, “Switch roles.” We did. Karen played the fastidious Felicia and I played the ballsy Esther.

We did it without a hitch and to tell you the truth, it was exhilarating. We were totally free. No constraints. Exactly what your characters in your stories should be when you give them free reign to be themselves. You know who they are. You wrote a biography for most of those main characters. Now let them take you where they want to go. That’s the point I am trying to make in this article.

You will be surprised when you free a character to speak his own mind or let her go where she really wants to go. Trust them. And maybe take an acting class to let you see what dialogue and character on the hoof is like. You’re out there on a stage and the words are alive. Make your characters come alive as well. They will love you for it. And so will your readers.

Author: gbpool

A former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, Gayle Bartos-Pool (writing as G.B. Pool) writes two detective series: the Gin Caulfield P.I. series (Media Justice, Hedge Bet & Damning Evidence) and The Johnny Casino Casebook Series. She also penned a series of spy novels, The SPYGAME Trilogy: The Odd Man, Dry Bones, and Star Power. She has a collection of short stories in From Light To DARK, as well as novels: Eddie Buick’s Last Case, Enchanted: The Ring, The Rose, and The Rapier, The Santa Claus Singer, and three delightful holiday storied, Bearnard’s Christmas, The Santa Claus Machine, and Every Castle Needs a Dragon. Also published: CAVERNS and Second Chance. She is the former Speakers Bureau Director for Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles and also a member of Mystery Writers of America and The Woman’s Club of Hollywood. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story,” (The Anatomy of a Short Story Workbook is available.) “How To Write Convincing Dialogue” and “Writing a Killer Opening Line” in sunny Southern California. Website: www.gbpool.com.

20 thoughts on “A Lesson in Character Building”

  1. Lots of terrific advice here, Gayle. I have to admit though, that I’ve gotten lazy, and don’t write out much of a character sketch these days. I might have a few notes but mostly it’s in my head. And I love the story about you and Karen going into the bar in character. And the idea of taking an acting class to help learn character is a good one. I never took one but I’ve been around enough actors to sort of let it sink in by osmosis.

    Also, this is a great piece of advice: “You will be surprised when you free a character to speak his own mind or let her go where she really wants to go. Trust them.”

    And as to Harvey Wallbangers: you used to be able to get them just about anywhere. But these days most bars don’t stock Galliano so it’s really hard to find one. And the last time I went to Musso & Frank a few months ago I stupidly forgot to ask, since it seems like something they might still make.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I need to get myself a bottle of Galliano and relive those good old days myself. But as to character bios, they do help me pin down character traits and I have gone back and visited some of my main characters and found out new things about them that they didn’t even know. My Johnny Casino character found out about himself in the second book that made him understand who he really was. We both learned something in that book.

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      1. Gayle, I loved and enjoyed your post on so many fronts and levels. To start with, Harvey Wallbangers were the only drink I liked back in the day when when people had a drink at lunch ((otherwise it would be straight Coke! (the soft drink that is))

        On another front, I am continually amazed at the interesting lives you and my fellow Writers in Residence, have lived! I did try acting lessons at a junior college once, and was a total failure–but as a writing tool/experience, I think you’re right on there, because I soooooo agree, characters-major, minor, inbetween–along with setting make one’s writing. Your novel Caverns combine both excellently.

        I could go on and on all the points I liked in this post–looking back reading for the second time, I just kept nodding in appreciation/agreement.

        And you’ve given me an idea for a current character in my current WIP…

        Thanks for a super post.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Linda, I always get a kick out of using all my various experiences in my stories. Might as well share them. Sometimes I am surprised I have had so many adventures.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Mad, Who knew Harvey Wallbangers had such a following? As for giving all characters, major or minor, a place in the sun, I enjoy letting everybody shine. It’s those details that make stories fun.

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  3. Great post, Gayle. I knew a lot of this about you, but reading the extra details was fun. You’ve shared your life as a “secret agent” so I can see why you write clever mysteries, and this side reveals why you can so easily insert humor into your stories. Next, we’d like to hear about some of your experiences growing up in Europe!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jackie, I have those three spy novels that follow my dad’s military career and our travels while in France. I used places I had actually seen even though I added some of the spy stuff. As one character says, “The facts are true. I made up the rest.”

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  4. Another informative post in the series. Thank you. You’ve lived an interesting life, and you have incorporated many of your experiences to enhance your writing and add to the realism on the page. Very good and practical suggestions.

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    1. What is so interesting, Frank, is that everybody has a ton of life experiences that are just waiting to be used in stories. My old landlord was a telephone repairman and he had a million stories. Many of them were about Hollywood actors since we live in Southern California, but “normal” people do funny things as well. Thanks for dropping by.

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  5. Gayle, you’ve given us another great post. I knew some of your past already and was interested in learning more. How you’ve used it all to benefit your writing is clever. I’ve taken an acting class a few years ago to help me with stage fright when doing readings and panel events, but I have yet to apply it to my writing.

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    1. Alice, I saw the difference those acting lessons made when you got in front of an audience after taking them. I just use some of those great lessons for my characters.

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  6. Interesting post, Gayle. Your advice is spot on. Although all life experiences can benefit authors, acting seems particularly effective for practicing ways to enrich our writing. As you mentioned, it can improve dialog, but also add those very human details like expressions, body language and mannerisms, to round out a character.

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    1. It was those little bits of business that I saw actors do that I started incorporating into my writing that gave even small players more character. It was well worth those years on stage.

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  7. Gayle, what a wonderfully entertaining and fascinating story. Thanks for letting us into your earlier life and pointing out how it has helped your writing. I agree that broadening one’s horizons- sorry, cliche- can broaden your life experiences and provide lots of great material for our books. When I moved to Laguna Woods I joined the Theatre Guild and the Old Pros, both filled with retired actors, showgirls, directors, screenwriters, etc. I consequently became host of a television show for the local TV channel, and for holiday parties on TV. Observing how actors and directors, even the cameramen, handle their roles makes for interesting character studies, the real thing. And reel, of course.

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    1. Jill, Your vast experiences with your writing articles for magazines and rubbing elbows with Hollywood folk really enhanced your work. It’s great to have that group of real characters to pick from.

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  8. From time to time I think about taking an improv class, which i’m sure would help with dialogue writing and character development. Great post, Gayle, inspiring and educational. I will share it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maggie, One of the most interesting things I learned from acting class was doing those little bits of business like quirks or gestures that define a major or minor character. Those are gold and also memorable to the reader. And it helps the writer think about who the character really is. Thanks for reposting this.

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