Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Casting for Stories

One of the things that always struck me as very sophomoric with writing was the "Cast List" for a piece of fan fiction or story.  If a writer wants the reader to conjure up a specific mental image for a character, then it's their job to provide that image in the prose itself.  And to be honest even that task is not easy.

In writing FantastiCon, I had an exchange in the first chapter that provided a very indepth description of a walk on character.  Allison was at the desk of her apartment complex with a random, unnamed other woman.  I then went through everything the random girl was wearing and contrasted it with Allison.  Then Allison walks off and we never see random girl again.

This drove my wife nuts.  She got a full paragraph treatment to a character she never sees again, one that doesn't even get a name.  So why did I do it?

At the time I was trying to find an excuse to provide a visual about what Allison looked like that was in the first chapter and did not beat the reader over the head with a "hey, here's what the main character looks like."  I did not want to do an info dump in the first chapter but I also did not want readers to get too far along without a solid visual depiction of the main character.  They were going to be spending a lot of time with Allison and I wanted them to be able to picture her as they went along.

In the end the extended visuals got cut as unnecessary and I had to find another excuse to say "here's what Allison looks like."  Fortunately I was able to do just that in the next chapter as her friend comes over and tallies up her crimes against fashion.  The mission was still accomplished but it did not require me to go through and create a character just for comparison.

So I understand the dilemma in writing to get that idea across and not lose the flow of the prose itself.  There is a certain attraction to just say "hey, the part of Regan is played by Pat Tallman, here's her picture!"  I'm not saying it's good writing, but it's a clear temptation.

Speaking of, yes, the part of Regan over on Mind the Thorns is played by Pat Tallman.  Let me explain why that matters to anyone, especially me.

When writing about a character there are lots of physical descriptors that come into play.  You want the audience to know what the character looks like without resorting to a "played by".  The easiest way to do that is to provide a reference image for your files and use that to describe the character as you write.  Another way is to create a file where you drop all of your character descriptions as they come up in the prose so you can go back over them.  And lastly you can write up character biographies and descriptions before you start writing and then play to them.

The risk of the latter is that I've found myself changing those bios usually within the first two thousand words of the prose.  For some reason a character just needs a different skill set, or I realize that I've got too many red-heads on camera at once (you get one, unless they're blood relations).  In Mind the Thorns the character of Emma started out with super long silver hair.  Then the more I worked her into chapter 4 the more she morphed more into a short no-nonsense pixie cut in black.  It just worked better.  Now I use Nicole DeBoers as my visual when I'm writing.  Of course that's about to change a little too.

We've been watching Newsroom and the character of Sloan Sabbith played by Olivia Munn has really caught my eye as a really cool character and a very attractive woman.  So for a little while I'm not sure who Emma looks more like, Sloan or Ezri.  I'll have to decide soon because at present either woman could play the part.

But what I think is the 'best practice' is to go ahead and collect the reference image but keep it in your private files.  It's for your internal notes and consistancy more than it's for your readers.  It should go in the same place you put your interview notes, your scene photos and your room layouts.

Now I admit that since I started posting Mind the Thorns over on Wattpad, there's been a bit of a drive to include more photographs and to have a "cast list" over in the margin.  This has made me feel like I should have, well, a cast list.  I really do hate leaving those areas open.  What I'm not sure I'll do is to actually post the "played by" on the website or anything.  There is a temptation to do so on the "Previously" page where I have the story summaries, but I'm not sure I want to go there, yet.

It has been a fun exercise, I will say, and for other stories, like Forget Me Never it forced me to stop and say "what does she look like?"  I confess too it's been a good excuse to break out the Twitter and try to get some buzz going, which is not a bad thing.

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