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Be Your Own Casting Director: Introduction

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

I’m hoping that I can in written form relay the information from a workshop I’ve taught a few times.

Be Your Own Casting Director: Using Real World Templates to Create Characters and Generate Story Ideas

Do you have pictures hanging off the sides of your computer monitor? Maybe tacked to a bulletin board? In a notebook or folder? Or (like me) electronically stored on your computer? Let’s talk about how to use those images for deeper character development and inspiration for our writing.

First, what are characters? I came up with three definitions:

  • People: real, whole, and alive
  • The tool a writer uses within his or her story to connect with the reader
  • The “active” part of the story

Now, there are a few terms you’ll need to be familiar with:

  • Visually Oriented Writer—someone who is visually oriented learns best and is inspired by visual stimulation (that’s me!)
  • Visually Oriented Character Casting (what this discussion is all about)
  • Real World Template – the picture of that actress, actor, model, singer, athlete, or whoever, you have taped to the side of your monitor because that’s “your character”
  • Casting Book – your collection of images of RWTs for your current work and for anything you might possibly write in the future

Why worry about the physical attributes?
We’re writing, not casting a movie or a play—so why worry about what the characters look like?

  • Have you ever been frustrated when reading a published book because you want to know what the characters look like?
  • In the semesters of critical research I did on Jane Austen’s work as an undergraduate student, I realized that unless a character was greatly self-involved (e.g., Frank Churchill in Emma), she never describes what her characters look like in detail except for generalities (tall, short, slender, plain). Picture Mr. Darcy in your head. What does he look like? Tall, slightly frumpy, curly brown hair, brown eyes, a little jowly? Or is that just because we’ve so identified Collin Firth with a character that isn’t even given that much description in the book?
  • Visually oriented people want to know what a character looks like, and it helps to distinguish them in your reader’s mind. If the character is well-described, the reader can immediately call to mind a visual image of the character and be grounded in your story.

But keep in mind—describing what your characters look like is not the same thing as character development. It’s just the gift wrap. You want your readers to be pleased at the external wrapping but eager to rip through it to see what’s on the inside.

Two types of Visually Oriented Character Casting

Pre-casting visualization (Inside-Out)

  • You’ve pictured the character in your mind so that you have already developed a clear, detailed mental image of the person and are looking for a RWT that comes close so that you have a visual reference as you write and don’t lose that image.

Casting from RWTs (Outside-In)

  • As soon as the idea for a character comes to mind, you go straight to your casting book to find a RWT to develop the character from.
  • Or you see an actor/actress/model, etc., who instantly becomes a character in your mind and a story begins to form around that template as that character.

I have used both techniques in the same story—including Ransome’s Honor which is what I’ll be using as my examples for this series.

Now, a writing exercise. Write a 2-3 sentence character description (within narrative) utilizing the following information—and try not to use any of these words directly:

  • Male, mid-30s
  • Brown Hair
  • Brown Eyes
  • Average height, build

If you don’t post your sentences in the comments, hang on to them, because you’ll need to refer to them in the assignment I’ll give next time . . .

  1. Anonymous permalink
    Thursday, October 19, 2006 2:05 pm

    Lucia pushed the raven locks off his sweaty forehead, willing him to open his eyes, those dark eyes so like his father’s.

    “Marcello, can you hear me?”

    He thrashed on the bed, his limbs tangling the sheets. In all her thirty-five years as his mother, she’d never feared more for the life of her son.

    Is average build implied because it isn’t mentioned? lol


  2. Wednesday, January 21, 2009 11:38 pm

    The second example is how I came up with the character of the great-uncle in my story. I saw a picture of an actor and suddenly, there the character was, complete with personality and problems and even some backstory. It was pretty amazing! 😉



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