Casting Characters: How Do We Picture Them?

Just in case anyone out there is wondering if Harrison Ford is the centre of my existence, let me assure you that I am far more shallow than you imagine me to be. I drool over many film stars. Which one do I like the most? Well, to borrow Ado Annie’s line from Oklahoma: “Whichever one I’m with!”

Or in my case, whichever one I’m currently watching in a movie. Movie-watching is a necessary part of life as a writer, and the ones I watch provide me with a casting selection for the characters in the books I am reading as well as the ones I am writing.

Back in 2009 I was part of a creative writing class in which there were nine students and two tutors. Seven of the students were in their 20s, two of us were… well… a decade or two older, as were our tutors.

When it was my turn to read an excerpt from the WIP that would later become my novella From Daisy with Love, I chose a passage quite far into the work, leaving out the detailed physical description of my main character. The setting was Durban in 1915, wartime, and my listeners discovered that Daisy had just celebrated her 18th birthday, she had dark hair and eyes, and her slim frame was the opposite of her chubby sister’s.

After the reading, the younger members of the class all wanted to know exactly what Daisy looked like, but my three older colleagues replied that they didn’t need a detailed description because they could picture their own version of her from the little I had inferred in the text. The four of us had grown up in the pre-television age of radio and our imaginations were able to concoct a whole from very few parts, but those who had grown up watching television needed to know more exact details in order to picture her.

Alarmingly, the younger members of the group couldn’t get into Daisy’s head and understand her as a character until they knew exactly what she looked like.

The opposite of this extreme is a remark I found on the Internet, that a POV character should never be described in full; we shouldn’t even be told the colour of the character’s hair or skin, so that readers of every ethnicity can relate.

So which one is correct? Well, I’m going for the middle ground here. I always enjoy a good fence to sit on.

Think of a character in a book and let’s cast someone in that role. Just like an actor is cast in a play.

My theatre training puts me in a unique position here, having attended numerous casting sessions over the years. Each character has basic requirements that must be met in terms of gender, age group, ethnic group and general physical characteristics. Casting agents send to the audition only the clients who fit those minimum criteria – as well as the necessary talent, of course, but we’re not dealing with that here.

Any actor who auditions is imagined in the context of the play, and the producers and director work with what is in front of them, bearing in mind who else they are casting in other roles, and who suits this particular role the best. They look for the right fit in other ways too – a romantic hero who is half a head shorter or has a much smaller frame than the leading lady might give a more comic impression than intended.

Unless the script is specific, the only guidelines about the character’s looks are the ones above. I call this The Hamlet Question, as in: What does Hamlet look like? Based on the above, he is male, about 30, fit enough to fence well (ignore that remark of his mother’s that he is “fat and scant of breath” because we also know that his opponent Laertes is an exceptionally good fencer), and his ethnicity does not have to be blond and Scandinavian (just because the original play was set in Denmark), but can be whatever suits the style of that production.

So Hamlet looks like the actor who is chosen to portray him, of course. He can be rough and hairy Mel Gibson, cool and blond Kenneth Branagh or whoever you saw on stage the last time you watched a production of it.

I wish I could remember who said that to picture a character in a book you have to imagine seeing them at a distance through slightly narrowed eyes, so the details are blurry but the gender, body shape, colouring and overall impression are captured – rather like a figure in the background of an Impressionist painting. Specific details such as a scar, dimple or particular coloured eyes can be added to this general image early in the text, but after that it’s up to the reader to fill in further details in their mind’s eye.

Because I love watching movies, my mind’s eye contains a database of actors that I can imagine playing the various characters in any book that I read, and I don’t have to worry about who is short and who is tall, because in my mind I can picture Tom Cruise as tall as Peter O’Toole if that’s what my imagination shows me. Actors can also be any age – I can just as easily picture a young Richard Burton as an older version, because I’ve seen both in the movies.

I like the idea of a blurred impression through narrowed eyelids. To take the earlier example I used in my writing class, I imagined very old photographs of my grandmother when she was young (the character of Daisy was loosely based on her), but from the few impressions I gave my readers, they could have imagined anyone from Anne Hathaway to Juliette Binoche and it wouldn’t have mattered to anyone else. As long as you could see a person within that age group, tall and slim, and dressed in old-fashioned clothing in a hot country during the First World War, that image would carry you through the book. At least that’s how I see it.

The problem is that sometimes the writer might wait until page 150 before mentioning the character’s blue eyes and then the reader who has imagined Anne Hathaway now has to scrabble about, rejecting images and trying to picture Alexis Bledel or Angelina Jolie in the role instead, so I prefer these basics to be mentioned early on when the reader is still trying to concoct a picture.

As a writer, I am guided by voice as much as looks here. In my first novel, The Epidaurus Inheritance, I pictured Penelope Cruz as my leading character through the first two drafts of the novel, but something in me couldn’t imagine her saying the dialogue I had written, and certainly not with a South African accent. Penelope Cruz is a beautiful woman and she has the most endearing Spanish accent, but seeing her as my main character just didn’t work. She was simply too perfect.

When I changed the casting and pictured Kate Winslet instead – with long hair like she had in Titanic, dark like it was in Quills – the character fell into place. Her body shape changed, as did her impression of herself. I rewrote her as big-boned and statuesque rather than small and slim, and this added a whole new dimension to her persona. It also fitted in with the hero’s character, because to him the perfect woman is like the Greek Caryatid statues on the Acropolis. He is an archaeologist and has probably been fantasising about them his whole life.

Kate Winslet has played so many different characters on screen that it wasn’t a huge stretch of the imagination to see her as a living Caryatid. Or to give her a slight South African accent. (No more than my own, which is not that pronounced and English in derivation, like many English-speaking South Africans.) I am not saying that everyone who reads that book will picture Kate Winslet, but it was important for me to picture her so that I could keep the character looking and sounding consistent throughout the writing. If you’re happier picturing Penelope Cruz, that’s fine too.

In my next novel, Benicio’s Bequest, while trying to think of a beautiful actress for the hero’s Italian ex-girlfriend, I pictured Penelope Cruz. Having a near perfect damsel as the heroine’s love rival added weight to her feelings of inadequacy. Since I speak no European languages, the Spanish accent was not an issue for me, but if you want to picture Monica Bellucci in the role instead, she’s perfect too.

As for my male characters, they can be played by British, American, South African or Australian actors, as long as they can do a variety of accents well. I find that many Brits and Aussies are particularly good at accents, which is probably why they’ve crossed that international divide, but don’t discount the remarkable accent abilities of American Robert Downey Jnr, who pops up in my books in various guises because he is so versatile, and I can hear his voice in many different accents in my head.

I also try to use actors who look different, so that all my leading men don’t turn out the same. Well okay, they do all tend to be tall, dark and handsome chaps, but there are plenty of excellent actors to choose from. Once again, just because I picture Hugh Jackman doesn’t mean that you have to. If you think the character looks more like Robert Downey Jnr, then please go with that. As long as my hero’s eyes don’t change colour on page 150, then we’ll all be happy in our respective little book worlds!

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12 thoughts on “Casting Characters: How Do We Picture Them?

  1. How absolutely fascinating — and a bit disheartening — to read what you said about the younger readers in your class. That’s something I’ve noticed a lot in young people. They seem to not have the ability to “conjure” images. And as more and more young children are introduced to the computer even in preschool, I worry about that. How in the world are people supposed to think outside the box when problem solving if they can’t exercise their imaginations? This was a great post! (I have two great loves at the moment. Harry has been supplanted by Tom Selleck — LOVE those Jesse Stone movies — and for a younger dude I’m really crushing on Tom Mison from Sleepy Hollow. Sigh…)

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    • Thank you, Calen. It’s odd how things change with each generation, isn’t it? I love reading Mary Stewart’s books but more modern readers complain that she is “too descriptive” so I guess we can’t please everyone. I will check out Tom Mison; I haven’t seen Sleepy Hollow.

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  2. Calen, I found Tom Mison and he sounds like a good actor. I’d love to see some of his work, especially Sleepy Hollow which seems like a good series. He’s also done some work with Rupert friend who is another versatile actor worth watching – good at both period and modern roles.

    By the way, your mention of Tom Selleck reminded me that he was originally cast as Indiana Jones, the iconic role that went to Harrison Ford because Selleck was unavailable. I remember Selleck as Magnum, but preferred him in a movie called High Road to China, which was an adventure in the Indiana Jones tradition. Also liked him as a jewel thief in Lassiter.

    I’ve never seen any of the Jesse Stone films, but was interested to see that the writer of those books – Robert B Parker – also wrote the Spenser books. These were filmed as a series called “Spenser: For Hire” and that character was played by the late Robert Urich who was also one of my favourite tall, dark and handsome heroes.

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    • Sleep Hollow is just plain fun. His lordship and I enjoy it because of all the references to the American Revolution. I’ve only ever seen Mison act (with his long hair — I’m a SUCKER for men with long hair, think Adrian Paul as Duncan MacLeod in The Highlander). I do know of Rupert Friend’s work.from Pride and Prejudice and (especially) The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

      I did know that Selleck was tagged for Raiders but turned it down to do High Road to China. I LOVE HRTC. I have a lot of the dialogue memorized! LOL Wore my VHS tape out and had to find a DVD of it not long ago. Awful recording of it though. I noticed Magnum PI was back playing on the cable networks now.

      And I really do like Robert Parker’s stuff. We loved Appaloosa with Viggo Mortenson and Ed Harris, which was one of his books. Reading them is like reading a movie script, not a lot of description. It’s sad that he’s passed on now. Others are writing his books, but I’m guessing they’re not quite the same. I’m a huge Clive Cussler fan (Raise the Titanic, Sahara — which turned out to be NOTHING much like the book), but his co-authoring with others doesn’t hold my attention. It’s just that no one can write Dirk Pitt the way he can. Not even his son.

      Lordy! I could talk about books for hours! I do get carried away.

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  3. Oh yes, and no matter how Austen describes him Colin Firth will always be Darcy! I do find it a bit disconcerting sometimes when books are made into movies and you watch the movie first then can’t get that actor out of your head when you try and read the book, because with Hollywood liberties sometimes they are rather dissimilar in looks. But then that proves the point of leaving gaps I suppose. Interesting things to think about. Thanks Susan.

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    • Colin Firth as Darcy – sigh! Although I must point out that Matthew MacFadyen made a lovely Darcy opposite Keira Knightley, in Joe wright’s film version…

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  4. How wonderful and informative it is that you take us into your writer’s mind and tell us how you work, what you consider, what you think about. I love your posts and can learn so much. I spent many years teaching youngsters to read, and I remember hearing at a reading conference that the reason students across the nation no longer read as well or choose to read for pleasure is that TV, where everything is given to them, has deprived them of the ability to picture the characters and actions in a story. At the time, and now, that bit of information saddens me. Your experience in your creative writing class seems to verify what I’ve long believed.

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    • Thank you for your kind words, Aunt Beulah. Readers today certainly want an instant picture reference, but I suppose we did too, back in my own childhood. The trouble was, we had no choice. The books in our time (for example, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series), had only a few pen and ink drawings to give us an idea of what everyone looked like and we had to imagine the rest. I felt quite cheated in my teens when I realised that British children had been able to watch the Famous Five on television while growing up and we unlucky souls had been forced to picture it all instead! Now I’m grateful, of course, but I wasn’t back then.

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  5. Until recently all my characters lived in my head as the blurred-squinted version and it was hard for me to describe them. Then I started using photos of actors and I’ve found it’s a lot easier, having said that, I don’t tend to over describe them because I grew up reading. And sometimes even the image on the cover doesn’t match what I see in my head.

    I had no idea the younger generation (of which, I am told, I am one) didn’t imagine things quite the same. Interesting concept. Thanks for that.

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    • TP, since you are of the younger generation, you give me hope that not all young readers and writers need explicit descriptions in order to picture characters. Growing up reading no doubt had a lot to do with the development of your imagination, and it shows in your writing, too. I enjoyed your first book, and your second one is on my wishlist.

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