Stupid Writer Tricks: Cast Your Characters

June 26th, 2006

Here’s a writing trick that’s so simple and so effective that I’m surprised I haven’t read it elsewhere. (And if it has been discussed elsewhere, someone post the link so I can give proper credit. I’m too lazy to Google for it.)

The trick is: cast all of the characters in your story with recognizable Hollywood actors as you write.

Why? The reason is very simple. It’s the easiest way to keep track of the details about your characters from eye and hair color to voice inflection and mannerism. After you’ve spent a month or two following an alternate plotline, by the time you return to the main story you may not remember what color the main character’s hair is, or whether the viscount’s sister’s brother-in-law was supposed to be skinny or fat.

But chances are you do remember what Sean Connery looks like with your eyes closed. You could describe Kevin Bacon circa Footloose or James Doohan circa The Wrath of Khan without any mental strain whatsoever. You know exactly how sassy Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was in The Abyss, and how her voice sounded, and you probably have a good idea of how she’d react when confronted with a robot rebellion on the fourth moon of Xigg. (Mary Elizabeth, incidentally, was the model I used for a character in Infoquake. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know who.)

My first reaction when I thought up this technique was that it would inhibit the writer’s creativity. On the contrary, it sets you free to focus that creative brain of yours on more important matters. It’s just a mnemonic device to help you remember details. And with the wide range of recognizable Hollywood actors out there, you’re certain to find someone that you can cast for every character in your book.

Is this going to spoil your readers’ imaginations? Not at all. Obviously you’re not going to tell them who you’ve cast. And I defy you to write a description of any Hollywood actor that your readers will be able to recognize, without being given the name. (Okay, I’m sure there are a few. Danny DeVito. Gilbert Gottfried. John Candy.)

So go write a casting sheet for every character in your novel or short story. Yes, every single damn one, major or minor. And don’t worry, through the magic of the imagination, you won’t even have to pay any royalties.

39 Responses to “Stupid Writer Tricks: Cast Your Characters”

  1. Sherwood Smithon 26 Jun 2006 at 4:23 pm

    Whatever works for any writer is a good trick, but here (since this blog is about discussion) is why it would not work for me.

    That is, most actors have doctored faces. Not Danny deVito, but there are many of those twenty-something blond actresses I cannot tell apart. They don’t look like real people to me, they look like animated plastic dolls. Some of the guys, too–made more alike because of the three day stubble shtick. Their expressions are schooled by the material, not indwelling and honest. Some mirror honesty more successfully than others, but even in the most ‘realistic’ drama there are subtle cues that demonstrate they know exactly where they are in the supposed dangerous situation, and how it will end–there is no true helplessness of not knowing.

    In other words, a director is telling them where and how to move, and so movies and especially TV have their own cliches, which would be far too easy to pull into books. I usually tell my writing students in junior high to turn off the sound when they watch their favorite show, and immediately they start seeing how artificial the groupgs are, the body language, the reactions. The fake grins when they are supposed to be conveying humor, a sort of visual laugh track.

    I love to people-watch; I like to sit somewhere–park, mall, restaurant along a boardwalk–and watch how people talk, how they walk, the subtle indications of relationship between them.

    If I am stuck in view of a terrible situation, I don’t look at the wreck or whatever, I watch the people around it, see how they are acting. Once the police caught a thief directly in front of my apartment. Their behavior was exactly like the behavior of the firemen who I saw in action numerous times in that tiny beach city. In all those cases the guys moved around way more than people normally do, back and forth, movement jittery and purposeless, their voices high-pitched with strain, lip-biting, nose-wiping, faces flushed, their vocabulary jaw-droppingly crude, all of this obviously shedding adrenaline. Whereas the same type of scene in just about every movie or show has the hero and the subordinates standing on their mark so the lighting doesn’t have to be changed, or moving purposefully, none of those extraneous actions, their voices tough and in control: they know what is coming next, and real people do not.

    However, I do catch features, skin tones, hair types, distinctive gestures from actors: but those things are part of the patchwork that makes up a character.

    The more I watch real people, the more distinct the characters are in my mind. (Whether they make it so distinct to the text in an entirely different discussion, and a battle I fight every blasted day, sigh.)

  2. David Louis Edelmanon 26 Jun 2006 at 4:33 pm

    I suppose there’s nothing that says you would have to use actual actors… you could use relatives or people you work with or the guy who runs the deli down the street. But… well, diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks, as Sly Stone used to say.

    Your comment about watching real people reminds me of an exercise a drama teacher had us do in college: we were supposed to eavesdrop on somebody else’s conversation and transcribe 2 or 3 minutes of it with all the “uh”s and “like”s and stutters intact. I was amazed at how completely inane and unintelligible people’s day-to-day conversations are. It brought home the point that playwrights (and by extension, novelists) really have to use certain dramatic conventions to get their point across.

  3. Carol Bergon 26 Jun 2006 at 5:42 pm

    Nope, I can’t use actors, even for myself. The more specifically I can describe a character’s physical appearance, in general, the less important the character is to my story. Of course I have an impression of how they look. But I try to sketch characters using just a few physical strokes and fill in the rest with personality. Then the reader can interpolate their own ideas of that kind of person. How else could one reader be convinced the hero of Transformation looked just like “Orlando Bloom with copper-colored skin” and another believe he must look like “Daniel Day Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans“?

    The place I do find casting useful is when I’m giving cover scene descriptions to my editor in hopes they get passed on to the cover artist. I’ve learned that it is not really necessary for the character on the cover to look like my own vision of the character as long as the feel is right, but I do like to get age reasonable and those “strokes” right.

    Carol

  4. Katharine Kerron 26 Jun 2006 at 6:37 pm

    Actors are indeed actors, as Sherwood has pointed out so cogently. My husband was for many years a professional character actor/comedian. He pointed out that good actors change their gestures, movement patterns, and speech to reflect the character they’re playing. Sean Connery, for instance, acted quite differently as James Bond than in his other roles.

    If you base a characters on a specific actor in a specific role, his gestures and movements may be wildly inapropriate for the role he’s “playing” in your book or story. You might even end up shifting the characterization to fit the old role, ie in the movie or tv show, without even realizing you’re doing it. This would lead to derivative work, in my personal opinion, anyway.

  5. Katharine Kerron 26 Jun 2006 at 6:41 pm

    Cover art — I’ve come to realize over the years that cover art is an advertisement for the book. Its function is to get the reader to pick up and open the copy lying on the new release table in the bookstore. Accuracy has little to do with it, as long as the cover art doesn’t actually lie to the reader or insult their intelligence, as for instance those bimbos in bikini chainmail do.

    I did recently ask for a cover rough to be changed for the British SNARE, though, she said, contradicting herself. It showed one of the protagonists in an accurate depiction of a scene from the book — except the protag was white on the cover, and in the book he’s Black. We compromised on a nice reddish dark brown. :-)

  6. L.N. Hammeron 26 Jun 2006 at 8:06 pm

    Even setting aside the motions, actors (especially Hollywood actors) have such a limited range of physical, facial, and ethnic types.

    —L.

  7. David Louis Edelmanon 26 Jun 2006 at 8:21 pm

    Wow, looks like I’m really in the minority on this one! Perhaps I can take comfort in being the James Deanish Rebellious Type on the blog.

    Has anyone else used this tactic successfully?

  8. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 26 Jun 2006 at 8:26 pm

    Good lord, I just cast the characters in my head with images from my imagination and I set and block their gestures and mannerisms for scene descriptions.

    I’ve sometimes done it the other way–thought of actors who could pull off a certain role–but if you model your character on a certain actor in a certain role, then you’re basically just modeling it off of someone else’s character.

  9. M.T.on 26 Jun 2006 at 8:38 pm

    Well, …I do cast characters, but not actual actors. A lot of them, however, end up quite different from what the character I borrowed looked, acted, or even sounded like. Sometimes the exact opposite.

    You’d think borrowing your favourite character would make you instantly pay attention to him/her, but- as I’ve found out the hard way- it often isn’t the case.

    I’ve sometimes done it the other way–thought of actors who could pull off a certain role–

    Do that a lot too.

  10. M.T.on 26 Jun 2006 at 8:56 pm

    (Sorry for double posting- pressed enter before I finished.)

    I know it’s not the greatest idea, and- gah, sibling’s making it hard to concentrate- …… Forgot what I was about to say. Classic.

    I do try my best to make them fit into the universe. Though I guess preconceptions about a character doesn’t always translate into text.

  11. Jellyn Andrewson 26 Jun 2006 at 10:55 pm

    This wouldn’t work for me. Even if I was inclined to describe my characters in such detail, I’d never remember the details of the actor in question. And what do you do if you’ve chosen an actor who has different colored eyes in different roles? Like Daniel Radcliffe. I think his real eyes are blue, but Harry Potter’s eyes are green. And what color are Brent Spiner’s again? LeVar Burton’s are blue, right? :)

    I don’t think I have a very good visual memory.. certainly not for people. I’d constantly be running to IMDB or some other site for reminders and photos.

    Consider this.. if you can’t remember what color your character’s eyes are, then just how important a detail was that to include in the first place?

  12. Pattyon 26 Jun 2006 at 11:26 pm

    I like to go through stock photos and find my main characters there. It does help to have a picture of what they might look like in front of me. Once in a while I’ll have an actor in mind for a character, but often I can’t think of the right one.

  13. Katharine Kerron 27 Jun 2006 at 1:54 am

    Consider this.. if you can’t remember what color your character’s eyes are, then just how important a detail was that to include in the first place?

    This is an excellent point!

  14. Kate Elliotton 27 Jun 2006 at 9:14 am

    Actually, Dave, I know other writers who cast the look of a face or some aspect that catches their imagination, or even cut out photos of faces they like – whether actors or not – to give them a template for a specific character, so you’re not alone.

    Mostly I don’t, although every once in a while I’ll see a photo of a face that reminds me in some aspect of one of my characters, or clarifies an element of their “look.” Or it might even be one element – an actor’s grin, an actress’s hair (as it is seen in a particular photo), etc.

    What I see more of is people “casting” the characters in a book, as if, “if X novel were made into a movie, who would you want to see play X character or Y character?” strangely, Sean Connery usually figures in most casting calls, somewhere or other.

  15. L.N. Hammeron 27 Jun 2006 at 11:00 am

    Annent Kate’s comment, there’s a delightful letter by Jane Austen describing an exhibition of Joshua Reynold’s portraits, in which she hunted for pictures of characters in Pride and Prejudice, then just published. She found many of them, especially a perfect Jane, but nothing that looked like Elizabeth — much to her disappointment.

    That’s after the fact, but same principle.

    —L.

  16. gary gibsonon 27 Jun 2006 at 11:16 am

    I don’t personally use actors as such when I’m writing, in my head, but i do get that thing sometimes where when I’m playing a scene out in my head, sometimes certain actors take over certain characters … it’s just a variation, really, on the ‘if my book was a movie, this is who I’d want to play this character’ game. it’s not uncommon however for a scene in a story to come together kind of cinematically.
    Fact is, we’ve all grown up with TV and movies, and they – along with a bunch of other influences – play a part in the way many people’s imagination works when they’re writing.

  17. makoiyion 27 Jun 2006 at 11:27 am

    I’ve found this whole discussion interesting. I can certainly see the appeal of comparing a character to an actor, but that wouldn’t work for me. My characters tend to be ‘born’. They arrive in my head. I know what they look like and who they are. They develop their mannerisms as we go on the journey together and they tell me which direction they’d like to go. True, we do have some arguments about that between ourselves, but basically they become ‘real’.

    I don’t fully describe my characters. Like Carol I like to allow people to make up their own picture, because, that’s something I’ve always done. That’s one piece of writing advice I took from CJ Cherryh’s writing tips that I’ve stuck to.

    I have sketched scenes on occasion, but since my artistic talent for drawing people is nil, it was never successful. It’s a bit like – the book in my head is never the one that comes out on paper, and I would guess if I attempted to really draw my characters it would be nothing like the image I have in my mind.

  18. David Louis Edelmanon 27 Jun 2006 at 12:59 pm

    Lots of good feedback. My idea seems to be getting roundly spanked here, but that’s okay.

    One thing to clarify: When I use this method, I don’t cast my characters until they have a personality and a look fairly solidified in my head. In other words, the actor’s persona doesn’t bleed much into the writing. They’re really just playing a pre-existing part.

    I saw an interview with the actor Bernard Hill about playing King Theoden in Lord of the Rings. He was amazed to see that the costume designers had actually embroidered some kind of royal monogram on the inside of his costume, where nobody would see it. He said that little details like that actually proved immensely helpful in getting under the skin of the character, even if those particular details never ended up on screen.

    I feel the same way about casting actors in my character roles. I may never make mention of the fact that such-and-such has a birthmark on his neck or slightly mismatched eyes. But I know that those details are there, and it helps build a more complete picture of the character.

  19. Kate Elliotton 27 Jun 2006 at 1:11 pm

    Larry, that is an amazing story about Jane Austen and the Reynolds exhibition. I knew she was Just Like Us!

  20. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 27 Jun 2006 at 3:20 pm

    That is a great story about Jane Austen.

    One of the thing that has constantly amazed me about literary critics is that, for people who seem so concerned with figuring out what the author was thinking, how little they’ve bothered to talk to actual living authors to figure out how they think. Or it may just be that you can’t get an academic essay published which says, “Jane Austen wrote this scene because she thought it would be really cool.”

  21. Katharine Kerron 27 Jun 2006 at 5:46 pm

    I saw an interview with the actor Bernard Hill about playing King Theoden in Lord of the Rings. He was amazed to see that the costume designers had actually embroidered some kind of royal monogram on the inside of his costume,

    Re: historical costume. Howards says that there’s a big difference between really wearing a historical costume and just inhabiting it. You know you’re really wearing it when you can go to the bathroom when it’s on just as easily as when you’re wearing your ordinary clothes.

  22. Constance Ashon 27 Jun 2006 at 6:23 pm

    Howard’s observation is something I’ve noticed myself.

    For instance, in the Elizabeth Taylor – Richard Burton Cleopatra most of the actors look fairly ridiculous in togas. The sandals on their feet don’t look right either, which must have been because these men didn’t feel right walking in such sandals.

    However, in the 1934 Cecil B. DeMille spectacle with Claudette Colbert as the queen of the Nile, the actors looked perfectly natural in their togas and sandals.

    BTW, though the DeMille was b&w, it is at least as opulent is the gorgeously colored Taylor-Burton Cleo.

    In my own case, its the voice of my characters that is the ah-hem, if you please, bass line of everything else about them.

    Love, C.

  23. Sherwood Smithon 27 Jun 2006 at 7:18 pm

    Yeah, the men also move as though they are embarrassed to be wearing those short tunics.

    Larry is right–that isn’t gossip about Jane, she writes it in one of her letters.

    like Alis, I might see a person (or an actor) who fits one of my characters, but it just wouldn’t work the other way around. All processes are equal, etc.

    When I was at someone’s house I happened to see a sitcom they were fond of–I forget its name–but Michael J. Fox played an ultra conservative high school kid in a family of liberals or loops. I took one look at Fox and was stunned–he looked, talked, even used his hands like a character I’d been writing about since 1966. Only his hair color was wrong. I didn’t even get what the rest of the episode was about, I just saw him. One other time that happened, the Gregory Peck character in one of his war movies, this one about pilots. Not in any other one, just that one, looked and sounded exactly like someone I’d been writing about since 1964. But he didn’t move like him.

    Only times that’s ever happened.

  24. Jannion 27 Jun 2006 at 7:53 pm

    I don’t think this is a bad technique at all, at least as a shorthand. The reason it wouldn’t work for me isn’t that using actors is too limited, but because I’m not focused on visual media–I have a handful of movies that I’ve enjoyed and that have stuck with me, but I don’t generally even know what most actors look like, any more than I know what manu politicians look like (because I don’t watch much TV, either). So it is literally true that if someone says “Kevin Bacon” to me, no particular image comes to mind. I can’t cast my characters because most actors aren’t enough a part of my personal shorthand to use them.

  25. David Louis Edelmanon 27 Jun 2006 at 8:35 pm

    Sherwood, that Michael J. Fox sitcom you’re talking about is (was) “Family Ties.” I’ve always had a soft spot for Michael J. Fox, no matter how schlocky the production…

  26. Katharine Kerron 27 Jun 2006 at 9:30 pm

    If I remember rightly, Margaret Mitchell wrote Rhett Butler whilst thinking of Clark Gable, who later played him of course in the movie of GWTW. That’s the only sucessful author I’ve heard of who used an actor, however, as a role model.

  27. David Louis Edelmanon 27 Jun 2006 at 9:48 pm

    Au contraire, Kit. J. K. Rowling has said many times that she had Robbie Coltrane in mind from the beginning for the character of Hagrid in her Harry Potter novels.

  28. Just \”E\”on 28 Jun 2006 at 11:33 am

    I might be naive in asking this but wouldn’t you run the danger of associating the casted actor with a character and somehow melding or perhaps losing your own originality. The familiar always seems to deter me from my own creativity. A character that I have that starts out complex, modeled against someone who exists, always somehow loses his levels of complexity and becomes cardboard. A type. A Harrison Ford-type in an Indiana Jones-type story inevitably becomes Indiana Jones either in your mind or the mind of the reader because of the “association”. Isn’t Tom Cruise always Risky Business or Days Of Thunder … isn’t Elijah forever Frodo? The most powerful associations seem to become the shortest leap for minds that are looking for that. Even when I don’t want my mind to it does.

    Elaine

  29. Sherwood Smithon 28 Jun 2006 at 2:49 pm

    Thanks, David. PS your technique is not wrong–any techniques that works for a writer can’t be wrong–just seems that most of the people here are wired differently than you.

    I do think that throwing out various techniques is a good idea, because if it’s worked for you, it’s bound to work for someone else. Someone, moreover, who might have been looking despairingly for just that thing to help them along.

    Just for purposes of discussion, two very popular techniques don’t work for me: interviewing characters (they live in their world, I in mine, and every time I try to set up a scenario in which we meet, bang! I’ve lost my connection with the worlds and feel kinds, I dunno, like I’m just talking to myself.)

    The other one is the pinning of index cards containing plot points all over. No can do: they just remain cards on a wall, they don’t relate to the structure of my story at all.

  30. makoiyion 28 Jun 2006 at 3:38 pm

    I’m so glad you said that about the index cards, Sherwood. I did that with the novel that the thirteen lines comes from. I sat and meticulously did every single chapter. Then I sat, and I sat, and thought, why did I do that? What a waste of time, although I could see it working for others.

    There are endless discussion over ‘organic’ writers or outliners or… Well, any kind of method you can think of. It truly is whatever works for you. The biggest learning curve is making seemingly effortless sentences, just like they do in the ‘real’ books.

  31. Harry Connollyon 28 Jun 2006 at 5:43 pm

    That’s the only sucessful author I’ve heard of who used an actor, however, as a role model.

    I heard that Anne Rice used Rutger Hauer as a model for Lestat and that Jim Butcher used a (younger) Jeff Goldblum as a model for Harry Dresden.

    Maybe this sounds weird, because I’ve never heard anyone else say something like this, but I see my characters as comic book drawings. The more page-time the character gets, the less detailed the image.

  32. Charleson 09 Jul 2006 at 5:59 pm

    I’ve heard some people talk about using an actor as a guide for a character’s description or mannerisms. Personally, that doesn’t work for me. Oddly enough, my very first characters came about through two completely different paths.

    Some of my oldest characters (we’re talking early 1970s) came about from playing with action figures. The moment I was given an action figure I immediately discarded whoever the actual character was and used the action figure to represent my own character. Between my younger brother and me we must have owned close to 30 action figures. All are gone, victims of a curious Great Dane.

    The characters I created have, on occasion, retained some element of the features of the action figure — most often hair color, but nothing in regards to the personality of the original action figure itself.

    The other place many of my original characters came from was simply from sitting down and writing out sections of the family tree of the characters I had.

    I have another post (my first in this website) over on the “Writing My First Novel” section where one would understand why I have family trees. (My stories and characters are all part of a ten thousand year history of 5 royal families, so family trees are essential).

    In creating ancestors and decedents to characters I had been using action figures to portray, I ended up developing the relationships and history of the world (well, universe actually) where my stories all take place.

    So, while I might find a small physical characteristic from an actor or politician or someone in my own life worth noting for reference, an actual person as a whole becomes more of a distraction for me.

    That said, to add to the known authors, Anne McCaffrey has a character from her Pern novels that looks just like Bill Murray. There is a book of sketches of her characters that contains the drawing.

  33. Erin Underwoodon 10 Jul 2006 at 7:16 pm

    Casting your characters with recognizable Hollywood actors is actually a screenwriter’s trick. The first time I heard about this was a few years ago in a screenwriting class.

    It’s a great trick for screenwriting since …. well, since you’re writing the script for actors to play and not for readers to read. Plus, screenplays aren’t supposed to be as detail rich in the descriptive text as fiction, which is probably why it works so well.

    Although I found this a handy trick for writing a few short screenplays, it hasn’t worked for me when writing fiction.

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  35. [...] Louis Edelman also brought up this topic not too long ago on the Deep Genre blog in his post “Stupid Writer Tricks: Cast Your Characters”, the trick being to “cast all of the characters in your story with recognizable Hollywood [...]

  36. [...] Some writers may think that’s cheating, but I think of it as collecting resources for inspiration. [...]

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  38. Disguises for Everyday Escapeon 20 Feb 2010 at 11:24 pm

    [...] movie images, and more to find visuals of key character features, clothing, attitude, setting, etc. Some writers may think that’s cheating(scroll thru the comments to find differing opinions), but I think of it as collecting resources for [...]

  39. melissaon 11 Nov 2014 at 1:07 pm

    Now that I’ve written a character for irresistable Jack, the dialogue becomes effortless. <3.

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