Are you a writer or an actor?

Over the years I have written many stories that included characters with personalities I couldn’t personally relate to, doing things I would never do. The reasons for this are as varied as the characters themselves, but ultimately it came down to one goal: serving the desires of my readers.

When writing fiction, I am often tasked with the need to step outside of myself and write about things that I may not directly understand or care for. Every character is my creation and I take pride in how I present them, but in order to serve the needs of the story I sometimes have my characters behave in ways that I personally find distasteful. Some characters I actually despise. But that’s kind of the point. That’s what those characters are supposed to do. Their actions and personality serve the needs of the story.

As I get into the minds of these nefarious fictional people, I find myself feeling more like an actor than a writer. Mentally I am portraying someone I’m not. As I write I play out different ideas in my head and experiment with scenarios and dialogue to get a rough idea of what I’m trying to achieve before actually writing it down. This is an uncomfortable feeling sometimes, because I am forced to role-play things in my mind that I would never contemplate otherwise.

I doubt all fiction writers feel this way, but for me I think it helps to have some acting skills. To get inside the heads of my characters and understand their motivations helps me give them life in my stories. If I write about them in the abstract, keeping a mental and emotional distance between the real me and the fictional them, how can they have any life or energy that will engage the reader?