More on One True Thing


More on One True Thing

In the last post, I discussed Meryl Streep’s approach to acting, which she summarizes as ‘one true thing.’ If she can find one important aspect of the character she is playing that is true for her as well, she can use that one true thing to guide her choices when portraying the character. I think this has application for writers, although it’s not an easy road.

Struggling with one true thing

I suppose that if I were a better person, I would identify one true thing for every major character I write. But in truth, I only use it when I’m having trouble with one.

In my semi-autobiographical novel, Kimono Spring [add hyperlink], I struggled for the longest time with the mother character. It was hard not to overlay how I felt about her, what I knew about her in years beyond where the novel was set, and generally get out of the way of allowing her to be who she was going to be on the page.

I wrote and rewrote the mother’s scenes but she always seemed distant or mechanical or whatever. Wrong in any case. I wanted the reader to understand even if they couldn’t condone the character’s actions. I didn’t feel as if I was getting anywhere.

Then I sat myself down and seriously did the one true thing. An image came to me of a woman drowning. It clicked. When a person is drowning, they grab onto anything or anyone, even if they drag the person in with them. A woman drowning is too desperate to notice or care whom she is hurting. I had almost actually drowned when I was quite young. I could use that experience to inform how the character must feel and write from that. So, while technical skill is also required, I was still able to use the image to create a character which was closer to what I wanted for her.

Trying one true thing

We all occasionally have characters who are distant, elusive, or just feel wrong. Try using one true thing.

What is true about this character that is also true about you? There could of course be any number of things but here I think you are looking for the essence of the character, what makes him pivotal to your narrative.

Is it that he fears people will find out that he isn’t the good person they think he is?

  • When have you presented yourself under false pretenses?
  • Why did you do it?
  • How did that make you feel?
  • What were you thinking?

Let the emotion of your experience infuse your character so that he acts from that truth which you understand.

Similarly, you want the character to be a free spirit but everything about her is sodden and leaden.

  • Think about a time when you felt you could do whatever you wanted (whether true or not).
  • How did you feel?
  • Where did the joy come from?

Find the part of you that is also a free spirit and write from that place.

So, one true thing. Isn’t the only way to tackle a character, of course, but I’ve found it useful. And who knows, if we use it, we may become Meryl.

One untrue thing.