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Cast of Characters

I am NOT one of those people who wonder why they have a TV because they never watch it. No…not me. I enjoy my entertainment in many forms…and I immerse myself in a fair amount of television. I have current favorites of course, and not surprisingly that list mirrors my interest in reading/writing (mystery, horror, and crime drama to name a few). My DVR plays a steady stream of Sherlock, Elementary, NCIS, Major Crimes (formerly The Closer), The Strain, Supernatural, Penny Dreadful, Homeland, Agents of Shield, and so on and so on.

On a separate, but tangently related note, I’ve been noticing that when I attend writer’s conferences many of the speakers tend to reference movies and television when they’re trying to illustrate a point. Just a couple of weeks ago I listened to popular author give a talk about developing plot twists, but all of the examples he cited were from popular cinema.
My topic for today involves something you can do in literature that, at times, is hard to pull off in visual media.

The stories in the movies and television we watch are told to us via actors. Actors that, if they’re talented enough and/or lucky enough, have inhabited many roles. There’s even such a category of actor called “Character Actor”, who according to Wikipedia, is a supporting actor skilled at playing distinctly unusual, interesting, or eccentric characters, such that they are almost unrecognizable from part to part, and yet play many, many roles convincingly and memorably. These are the actors who will always play the "tough and determined guy", or the "upstanding lady matriarch", a "sophisticated, sometimes ambiguously moral man", or a "calm, composed character with an edge and potential to explode". Ed Lauter, for example, usually portrayed a menacing figure because of his long, angular face which was easily recognized in public, although audiences rarely knew his name.

The inherent problem with character actors is that they accidentally telegraph future plot points. For example, an actor who commonly portrays someone with questionable ethics, will tip off where the story is heading just by the fact that actor was cast in the part (if you watch visual media fairly regularly). It’s a trapping of utilizing character actors to depict a certain personality in order to shortcut actual character development. It’s as if the screen writer sketches an outline of how a character will behave (their motivation) and the character actor helps fill the rest.

With our writing however, we have no such luxury…or ploy. In order for the reader to understand our characters, we must fill in all the blanks. There are no short cuts. There just aren’t. Sure, we’ll let them draw upon their own experiences…their prejudices…their rose color glasses to add context, but in the end it falls to us to breathe life into each and every player. The personality, disposition, mannerisms, and temperament of all of our characters come from inside us and cannot be outsourced to a character actor. The upside…there are no reader pre-conceptions other than their own proclivities.

It’s an awesome responsibility…but isn’t that what we signed up for? 


  1. Hi Don
    Good post. The ability to create characters and imbue them with their own voice is the mark of a skilled writer. One of my favorite character actors is Jeff Daniels.

  2. Plus we have to convey so much more through those characters since people can't actually see them.

  3. I love the whole character development part. I always have crowds of people hanging out in my head. A book starts when I begin putting some of these characters together and asking myself what they might do if something happened… Then everything seems to take on a life of its own as I find out.

  4. Hi Don - I can do my blog posts .. but characters I'm sure I'd fall flat on my face with ... as you say so much to draw out and thus for the reader to be drawn into ... cheers Hilary

  5. Oh man, LOVE Sherlock. Benedict is destined to be my future husband :) And Supernatural is an old fave, too.

    Good point! Often things can be better delivered on screen, but character development always has more potential in a book, where you can get inside the head of the character. I always worry mine aren't fleshed out enough... I focus on that a lot when I'm writing.

  6. I love this, because I LOVE TV, and for a long time thought I wanted to be a sitcom writer (then learned sitcoms were being replaced with reality TV, boo) but when I did work in TV I was amazing how the talent brings the words to life, so sometimes the writers could rest on their laurels a bit, or they were allowed to have an off day. Not the case with us! But it is way more fun our way :)

  7. Wonderful point! I love that we have the creativity at our fingertips to create a dark-haired, blood red-lipped heroine with sharp claws (I actually have a villainess like this and it made me realize that the poor lady is typecast when I read your post), or a villain with snazzy white teeth and a job at a diner (Of course, for me, perfect teeth symbolizes a love of dentistry and that's just kind of wrong in my mind anyway - sorry for any dentists out there, but really, who strongly desires regular visits to someone who will put their hands in your mouth with power tools? 50 Shades has nothing on that.)
    Anyway, all my silliness aside - thanks for sharing this, DL! :)




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