Casting and the Nuances of Performance
Every writer has a different process for creating their characters. Some use a spreadsheet examining every detail of who they are, their relationships, and what their favorite food is. (Sacha Black posted The Ultimate Character Sheet, which you can download to do just that.) Others explore them on the page, without a plan, only knowing they have to hit the high notes and get to a particular destination. In the end, neither way is right or wrong and this isn’t about process.
What it is about is the nuance of performance of your characters and how to come about casting them to make your process a little easier.
Every production has a casting process. Some are open call. Some people get cold called by a director asking them to play the part that was written for them in mind. To a certain extent, your character is in your head already but they aren’t alive. They’re just a name and some traits. Let me give you an example.
The lead of my book, Shotglass Memories, is Joseph Sinclair. What do I know about him from the gate? He’s a male Caucasian, medium build, black hair and on the quiet side. He’s a soldier. He has, what we call today, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He works at a place that’s a mix between a diner and a grocer. That’s all fine but it’s a list. Nothing more. There’s no soul. Why should a reader care who Joe is?
I have my short list of who would play the part of Joe in the movie. It could be Tom Cruise, Ben Affleck, or Bradley Cooper to name a few. I wrote a post about it. But one of the original people I thought of was Jon Hamm from Mad Men. Any one of those actors create different iconic possibilities, even though they’re cut from the same cloth.
Once you have your actor or actress, sit in your chair and close your eyes. Just move the camera around inside your head. The difference between writing today and, let’s say, two hundred years ago is the motion picture and television. We live in a visual society. People think in short bursts of motion. You don’t need to explain in excruciating detail every nuance of your character and environment. But you do need nuance. You need to guide the reader through a scene with the most essential information including but not limited to the story, the character, or the environment. Their experience will fill in the rest. The flood gate opens.
The difference between writing today and, let’s say, two hundred years ago is the motion picture and television.
Like an animation test in a film you need to picture your character walking around a room, or down the street. Picture the actor or actress looking around and apply your list of traits. What’s their expression? Do they have a particular quirk you’ve seen them do across multiple films or shows? What is the cadence of their speech? Do they say “what?” in a particular way while furrowing their brow and, if so, how? You don’t need to write it all down or get it all in the story. But it will help you to better dictate the performance to the page. Build up the layers then strip the writing down to the essential. Less is more but you need to make them three-dimensional or your reader won’t care what happens to them.
This applies to anything from walking, to sex, making love, fighting, or cooking. Maybe they favor one leg or there’s a lean to the left when sitting in a chair. I’ve used this process within the writing process with each one of my characters. I even started what is called a Mood Board or Vision Board over on Pinterest, which is the aggregation of visuals for me but also gives the reader a taste of the book in visual terms.
You don’t want to taint the well. You can’t, and shouldn’t, come out and describe your character as the actor of your choosing. They are merely a starting point for you to build a performance on. Your characters may be actor but they are only a part of your story. You are the actors, the director, the camera operator, the grips, you do the scheduling, and you’re the cinematographer. You’re setting the tone with mood and dialogue for the entire production, in this case your book. Pay attention to every day conversation. How people act toward each other in all of its forms. Layer it in. More nuances.
I am from the show don’t tell school of writing. It’s not purple prose but it’s a little more detailed than a screenplay. All of the emotion, all of the internal dialogue, comes through the nuances of performance and dialogue. If I did my job then you’ll know what Joe or Kelsey are thinking without them telling you, unless they’re telling each other. Nerves come through in sweat and stammer. Anger comes through in a clenched fist. Nails biting into the palms. Deep breaths. A stare.
Nerves come through in sweat and stammer. Anger comes through in a clenched fist. Nails biting into the palms.
You can see that while I gave Joe as an example, I posted a few different actresses that could portray my female lead, Kelsey Halliday. They’re all similar in look but you’ve probably seen at least two of the three actresses perform and how different those performances are. All different takes on who she could be, but at the same time none of them are who Kelsey is.
The originality of the writing, and what you accomplish, is yours alone. It’s your voice on the page and your style. This applies to a comedy as much as it does a drama so there’s no pretension here. Casting has helped me significantly throughout the process and has given me another entry point into who these characters are. They’re still growing. I’m still discovering who they are. But they aren’t just names or traits anymore.