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!