Getting into Character by Brandilyn Collins

I was immediately intrigued by the subtitle of this book: “Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors.” I hoped that it would teach me to write characters as vivid as the ones in my favorite movies. Since actors can only show emotion, not explain it, I hoped to learn to do the same thing (on paper). I can’t say that I learned everything about characterization from GETTING INTO CHARACTER, but I did pick up a few useful tips.

The seven “secrets” aren’t really secrets. They are staples of the writing craft. Collins insists on over-explaining and using a lot of made-up jargon, but here they are in plain English.

  1. Personalizing (Making sure your character is distinctive)
  2. Action Objectives (What does your character want?)
  3. Subtexting (Avoiding “on the nose” dialog)
  4. Coloring Passions (Emotional variety, mixed emotions)
  5. Inner Rhythm (Body language)
  6. Restraint and Control (Using the right words to describe emotion)
  7. Emotion Memory (Using your own emotions when writing)

None of these are new ideas. However, putting them into the context of acting is interesting. Many writers act out difficult scenes as they write them or speak their dialog out loud. Collins simply takes it further, showing how actors prepare for roles, and how writers can write in much the same way. She does more showing than telling, explaining each technique in a straightforward way. And while her made-up examples aren’t very artful, they get the point across.

Collins ends each chapter with two long passages from classic novels. She has chosen them carefully and they do a good job of illustrating her “secrets.” Her choice for emotion memory is particularly apt. She cuts back and forth between HUCKLEBERRY FINN and Mark Twain’s autobiography to show how Twain used details and emotions from his own life in his fiction.

True confession time: I read GETTING INTO CHARACTER once before, back when I was a new writer. I didn’t enjoy it. The lessons seemed overwhelming and almost incomprehensible. How in the world would I ever be able to do all this? Now, a decade later, I find Collins’ methods understandable and I’m easily able to follow her suggestions. Although I still find GETTING INTO CHARACTER jargon-heavy and dense, I’m now able to weed through it and pick out the gems worth keeping.


rating: 3 stars


This book is best for: advanced writers


I recommend this book or The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing by Writer’s Digest or Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias

5 thoughts on “Getting into Character by Brandilyn Collins

  1. Are you saying this would be better for advanced writers because one needs great familiarity with the technical aspects of the craft to wade through her explanations?

    • Yes, that’s exactly it. A beginner will be flumoxxed, but an advanced writer won’t get confused when Ms. Collins goes a bit over the top with her jargon. Thank you for helping me clarify.

  2. I’ve noticed the same thing with books about writing (and other writing about writing) in general. The more experience I have as a writer, the more I understand about writing, and the more those books make sense to me and are helpful.

    Thanks for the review! I’m pretty sure this book is on one of my lists to buy, and it sounds like that’s where it belongs (well, until I buy it, at least).

  3. What ‘s interesting to me (though perhaps not the exact point of your post) was how much actors may prepare for roles the way novelists prepare their books. It actually gives me a new appreciation for the hard work actors do! Now perhaps someone will pen a book on what actors can learn from novelists. 😉

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