Method Writing: Immersing yourself in character experiences for authentic storytelling

Taking the Plunge into Your Characters' Lives


Ever wondered what it’d be like to step into your character’s shoes? And I don’t mean just imagining it – I’m talking about literally living their life. Welcome to the wild world of method writing, folks. It’s not for the faint of heart, but boy, does it pack a punch when it comes to authentic storytelling.

As a blogger who’s been covering the literary scene for more years than I care to admit (let’s just say I remember when e-books were considered newfangled), I’ve seen writing trends come and go. But method writing? This one’s got staying power. It’s like method acting for the pen-and-paper set, and it’s changing the game in ways that would make Stanislavski himself sit up and take notice.

So, buckle up, dear readers and writers. We’re about to dive deep into the world of method writing, where the line between author and character blurs faster than you can say “immersive experience.” Trust me, by the end of this article, you’ll either be itching to try it yourself or thanking your lucky stars you’re just a reader. Let’s go!

The Birth of a Technique: From Stage to Page

Alright, let’s start with a little history lesson. Don’t worry, I’ll try to keep it snappier than your high school English class.

Method writing didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. It’s the literary love child of method acting, that intense technique where actors practically become their characters. You know, the one that gave us stories of Robert De Niro driving a taxi for months to prep for “Taxi Driver” or Daniel Day-Lewis refusing to leave his wheelchair while filming “My Left Foot.”

The idea behind method acting is simple: to create a truly authentic performance, you need to experience what your character experiences. Method writing takes this concept and runs with it, sprinting straight off the stage and onto the page.

The first whispers of method writing started in the late 20th century, but it’s really taken off in recent years. Maybe it’s our obsession with authenticity in the age of fake news, or maybe writers just got tired of being cooped up in their offices. Either way, method writing has gone from a quirky technique to a full-blown movement.

So, What Exactly IS Method Writing?

Alright, time for the million-dollar question: what the heck is method writing, anyway?

In a nutshell, method writing is all about immersing yourself in your character’s world. It’s about experiencing what they experience, feeling what they feel, and then translating that onto the page. It’s the difference between writing about a chef based on Food Network shows and actually working in a professional kitchen for six months.

But here’s the kicker – method writing isn’t just about research. Oh no, that would be too easy. It’s about full-on, no-holds-barred immersion. If your character is a homeless person, you might spend a week on the streets. If they’re a mountain climber, you might find yourself halfway up Everest (okay, maybe start with something smaller).

The goal? To create stories and characters so authentic, so vivid, that readers forget they’re reading at all. It’s about making your fiction feel more real than reality itself. Sounds intense? You bet it is. But for many writers, the results are worth every uncomfortable, exhausting, and exhilarating moment.

Method to the Madness: Examples of Extreme Method Writing

Now, let’s get to the good stuff. The stories of authors who’ve taken method writing to the extreme. Buckle up, folks—it’s about to get weird.

George Plimpton: The Paper Lion

Back in the 1960s, George Plimpton decided the best way to write about professional football was to join a team. He actually convinced the Detroit Lions to let him participate in their training camp and even play in an exhibition game. The result? “Paper Lion,” a sports classic that gives readers an insider’s view of life in the NFL.

Nellie Bly: Ten Days in a Madhouse

Talk about commitment to the craft. In 1887, journalist Nellie Bly had herself committed to a mental asylum to expose the horrible conditions there. She spent ten days living as a patient, experiencing firsthand the cruel treatments and neglect. Her resulting exposé led to major reforms in the mental health system.

A.J. Jacobs: The Year of Living Biblically

For his book “The Year of Living Biblically,” A.J. Jacobs spent an entire year trying to follow every rule in the Bible as literally as possible. This meant growing a ZZ Top-worthy beard, wearing all-white clothes, and even stoning adulterers (with pebbles, don’t worry). The result was a humorous and insightful look at religious literalism.

John Howard Griffin: Black Like Me

In 1959, white journalist John Howard Griffin underwent medical treatments to darken his skin and lived as a black man in the segregated South for six weeks. His book “Black Like Me” offered a stark portrayal of racism in America and became a bestseller, though it also sparked controversy about the ethics of his approach.

These are just a few examples, but they give you an idea of how far some writers will go for their art. It’s equal parts admirable and slightly bonkers, if you ask me.

The Payoff: Why Writers Put Themselves Through This

At this point, you might be wondering why on earth writers would put themselves through such extreme experiences. Is it masochism? A severe case of writer’s block? An excuse to procrastinate?

Well, according to the method writing devotees I’ve talked to, the benefits are worth every uncomfortable moment. Here’s what they say:

Authenticity Overload

The biggest draw of method writing is the unparalleled authenticity it brings to storytelling. When you’ve lived your character’s experiences, you can describe them with a level of detail and emotional truth that’s hard to fake.

One writer I spoke to, who spent three months working as a farmhand for her novel about rural life, told me, “I could have researched farm work till the cows came home (pun intended), but I would never have known about the specific ache in your lower back after a day of baling hay, or the exact smell of a barn at dawn. Those details make the story real.”

Emotional Resonance

Method writing allows writers to tap into the emotional core of their characters in a profound way. By experiencing similar situations, writers can better understand and convey their characters’ feelings, fears, and motivations.

A crime novelist who shadowed police officers for a month said, “I thought I understood fear and adrenaline. But feeling it firsthand, in real high-stakes situations? That changed everything about how I wrote my detective protagonist.”

Unexpected Inspiration

Often, the experiences gained through method writing lead to plot twists and character developments the writer never saw coming. Real life has a way of being more surprising than fiction, after all.

One memoirist who retraced her grandmother’s immigration journey told me, “I thought I knew her story. But actually making that trip myself? I discovered family secrets and untold stories that completely changed the book.”

The Dark Side: When Method Writing Goes Too Far

Now, before you go quitting your day job to live as a 19th-century coal miner for your historical novel, let’s talk about the potential pitfalls of method writing. Because trust me, it’s not all artistic epiphanies and authentic details.

The Physical Toll

Method writing can be physically demanding and even dangerous. One writer I interviewed spent two weeks hiking the Appalachian Trail for her novel. Sounds great, right? Well, she ended up with a sprained ankle, a nasty case of poison ivy, and a newfound fear of bears. The resulting chapter was vivid, sure, but was it worth it?

The Mental Strain

Immersing yourself in your character’s world, especially if it’s a traumatic one, can take a serious toll on your mental health. One crime writer I spoke to, who interviewed convicted murderers for his book, admitted to having nightmares for months afterward.

The Legal and Ethical Quandaries

Some method writing practices can land you in hot water. One author I know almost got arrested for trespassing while trying to break into a building “like her character would.” Remember, folks: “It’s for my book” is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

The Blurred Lines

Perhaps the most insidious danger of method writing is losing yourself in your character. When you spend months living someone else’s life, it can be hard to find your way back to your own. More than one writer has told me about the disorientation and identity crisis that followed an intense period of method writing.

Finding Balance: The Middle Ground of Method Writing

Now, before you swear off method writing forever (or start planning your new life as a deep-sea diver for your underwater thriller), let’s talk about finding a balance. Because like most things in life, the key to method writing is moderation.

Many writers find success in a more measured approach to method writing. They might immerse themselves in their character’s world for short periods, or focus on specific experiences rather than trying to live their character’s entire life.

For example, if you’re writing about a character who’s a chef, you might take a few cooking classes or spend a weekend working in a restaurant kitchen, rather than enrolling in culinary school. If your character is going through a divorce, you might interview divorced couples or attend a support group meeting, rather than ending your own marriage (please don’t do that).

The key is to find a level of immersion that enhances your writing without completely derailing your life. Remember, the goal of method writing is to improve your story, not to become your character permanently.

Method Writing in the Digital Age: New Frontiers

Now, I know what some of you tech-savvy readers are thinking: “Can’t we just use virtual reality for this kind of thing?” And you’re not wrong. The digital age is opening up new possibilities for method writing that don’t involve risking life and limb.

Virtual reality and augmented reality technologies are allowing writers to immerse themselves in different environments and experiences without leaving their writing desks. Want to know what it feels like to walk on Mars for your sci-fi novel? There’s probably a VR experience for that.

Similarly, online communities and social media are providing new ways for writers to connect with people who have the experiences they’re writing about. Want to understand what it’s like to live with a rare medical condition? There’s likely an online support group you can learn from.

But here’s the million-dollar question: can these digital experiences ever truly replace the real thing? The jury’s still out on that one. While technology can provide incredible simulations, many method writers argue that there’s no substitute for real, physical experiences. The debate rages on, and I, for one, am excited to see where it leads.

The Verdict: Is Method Writing Worth It?

So, after all this, you might be wondering: is method writing really worth it? Should you start planning your immersive character experiences, or stick to good old-fashioned imagination and research?

Well, like most things in writing (and life), there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Method writing can be an incredibly powerful tool for creating authentic, vivid stories. It can provide insights and details that are hard to get any other way. And for many writers, it’s an exhilarating and transformative process.

But it’s not without its risks and challenges. It requires time, resources, and a willingness to step way outside your comfort zone. And let’s be real—not every story requires you to live as a nomadic shepherd for six months.

My advice? Start small. Try out some minor method writing techniques and see how they impact your writing. Maybe spend a day doing your character’s job, or visit a location that’s important in your story. See how it feels, see what insights you gain.

Remember, method writing is a tool, not a rule. Use it when it serves your story, not when it derails your life. And always, always prioritize your physical and mental wellbeing over literary authenticity. No novel is worth compromising your health or safety.

In the end, the best writing comes from a place of genuine curiosity and empathy. Whether you achieve that through method writing or other techniques is up to you. So go forth, explore, and most importantly – write!

FAQs About Method Writing

Q: Do I have to do everything my character does to be a method writer?

A: Absolutely not! Method writing is about gaining authentic experiences to inform your writing, not about recreating every aspect of your character’s life. Choose experiences that are safe, legal, and beneficial to your story.

Q: Can method writing lead to better book sales?

A: While method writing can lead to more authentic and engaging stories, there’s no guarantee it will boost sales. Many factors influence a book’s commercial success.

Q: Is method writing only for fiction writers?

A: Not at all! Non-fiction writers, especially those working on memoirs or immersive journalism, often use method writing techniques.

Q: How do I know if I’m taking method writing too far?

A: If your method writing practices are negatively impacting your physical health, mental wellbeing, relationships, or daily life, it’s time to step back and reassess.

Q: Can I be a good writer without using method writing techniques?

A: Absolutely! Method writing is just one approach to creating authentic stories. Many great writers rely on research, imagination, and empathy without extensive personal immersion.

Remember, folks, at the end of the day, method writing is just one tool in a writer’s toolkit. Use it wisely, use it safely, and most importantly, use it to tell the stories that only you can tell. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go live as a journalist for a while. Oh wait…


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