Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A cast of characters

This is not a picture of me.

I know, I had to do a double take, too.

But, then I remembered that there has never been a time where I was smiling and cutting flowers while simultaneously having my picture taken. Though it does sound like a nice way to spend an afternoon.

My daughter saw this picture while we were shopping at a local craft store (incidentally, I'll be happy to credit the photographer and/or model, should they happen upon this post), and she asked why my picture was on the wall.

Some people just have one of those faces, I suppose. Helen of Troy's launched a thousand ships. Mine inspired floral arrangements. Or at least, that's what it was cast to do.

Please accept my apology for this horribly executed segue.

In the past whenever I've written a fictional story, I've always inserted faces I know into the characters I create.  Authors write what they know, after all. And I have dated a lot of people I'd like to take revenge on know a lot of people.

And because I know a lot of people, I have many pre-existing, non-copyrighted, you-can't-sue-me-unless-you-can-prove-defamation-was-intended personalities stored in my mental hard drive alongside all the adjectives I would need to describe them.

Inevitably, though, when I would borrow the physical and personal descriptions of someone from my real life for character writing, I'd struggle to keep straight the truth from fiction, and as a result I could never really own my writing. Too much real life kept seeping in.

I did not want this to happen for Songs Eight Six.

When I began writing this book, I wanted to be intentional about my characters. I needed to know them objectively as well as subjectively, and if you've ever tried to approach understanding any person you actually know like this, you'll find that you feel like a stalker. Or at least I did. And I'm pretty sure that the person I originally imagined as "Westley" would feel totally violated if he had the means to go through my Internet search history.

Aside: Would it have killed you to have a Facebook, fake-Westley? Or at least done something Google-image-search-worthy? You really made me work for those two pictures of you from your college sports team. Congrats, by the way, on your game winning goal back in '02.

So, instead of trying to reinvent the people I knew into the people I was creating, I did one better. I hired actors.

If you could break into my computer files (pretty please don't), you'd find folder after folder of files named "Cosette" and "Micah" and "Bronwyn", and within those folders, many, many pictures of actors you probably know by other pretend names. Because as actors, they are professionals at being fictional. And YouTube has a whole lot of footage of most of them, speaking, emoting, and gesticulating (I swear that's not anything dirty) in ways that I could shape into the people I wanted to write about.

I studied these actors, their work, their roles. I had to do so without getting attached to any single character they played, lest I end up back at square one, writing about a pre-existing persona. Once I had enough familiarity with these actors, I decided who I wanted to play each of the roles in the book. And then, that's who they became.

That's how my characters became.

This worked for me. So well, in fact, that whenever I refer to any of these actors in my real-life now, I usually call them by the wrong name. The fictional wrong name that I've given them.

I've been VERY fortunate to have had about forty readers in my preliminary test-groups for my novel (this sounds way fancier and more organized than it really was), and in my debriefing with them after they have finished the book (which usually consists of three hours on Skype, because I'm obsessive like that) I always ask them WHO they picture as each of my characters.

Do they insert people they know, like I used to do?

Do they imagine actors, and if so, who?

I am just as fascinated by my readers' process of casting this book as they are curious about who I've picked to play each of the roles as I watch the story on the movie screen of my mind.

I don't know how other authors create their heroes and villains, but as I look forward to writing the sequel to this novel, I already have a file folder full of actors who I don't have to pay royalties to cast to play new characters, because that is what works for THIS author.

You know, the one from the picture.


  1. This reminds me of a middle school teacher (not Erica) who always used to ask who we'd have play important historical figures. She was using this to have us have a deep thought about the person we were studying. Joke was on her, of course, because I'd pretty much pick Tom Hanks for every single person ... because he can play anybody.

  2. I found this extremely interesting. Now I want to read it and see who I picture or think of!