This past weekend we had our performances of “The Altos – Like the Sopranos, Only Lower” at the community theatre here in my small town. I played Nona Alto, the mother of mobster, Tony Alto. Nona is…. how do I put this delicately? A little off. Her daughter-in-law, Toffee, says Nona is crazy, but I would hesitate to go that far. Let’s just say she is sometimes in her own little world.
This was a fun character to play, and as I worked at figuring out how to portray her on stage, I realized again that figuring out how a character would act on stage is an important part of developing characters for novels.
When we develop characters for stories, we usually start with the basics of physical looks. Is she tall? Short? Thin? Heavy? What color is her hair? Her eyes? Is there something distinguishable about her looks? A scar? A tattoo? Then we add a few mannerisms that are unique to that character, but for the character to come fully alive we have to add a lot more.
As I was fleshing out my interpretation of Nona, I thought about how she would walk across the stage. It would be different from the way a confident, secure, young person would walk across the stage. What would she do with her hands? She is uncertain and anxious much of the time. So I made sure I had a tissue with me at times to ‘worry’ when emotions were high. To convey the fact that she suffers from slight dementia, I wore clothes and shoes and a hat that did not match and looked like what a four-year-old would throw together when playing dress-up with mom’s clothes.
What prompted me to write this blog is what happened before the final performance yesterday. I was considering putting rouge on my cheeks the way women used to do fifty years ago. It was applied much differently than blush is today and looks like two round red spots. Since I don’t wear make-up and don’t even know how to use it, I asked my actress friend, Mia, whether I should put the rouge on. Her response? “What would Nona do.”
Aha! That is the question we should always ask ourselves. It is not what we would do. It’s what the character would do. That’s how we create characters who become so real the reader will consider them as a brand new friend.