Do you sometimes have trouble finding and maintaining different “voices” or mannerisms for your various fictional novel characters? Have people accused your characters of acting and sounding the same, beyond gross differences in their makeup? Authors can struggle with this, especially those new to creating fictional characters for a story.
If you’d like a new way to manage this issue, try one of my favorite characterization tools: For each character, imagine a particular actor in a particular role as playing that character.
Like certain memory exercises, applying an actor to your characters is a good way of giving yourself a mental image of their character aspects, and how they would act or speak in particular situations. If you know what kind of character you plan to create, and a particular actor in a particular role epitomizes that character, they become an easy memory cue to how to approach the character.
As an example: You’ve created a hard-as-nails ship’s commander, and you want to nail down his mannerisms. Well, you certainly have a lot of commander characters to choose from in movies and TV shows, from tough, gruff Edward James Olmos in Battlestar Galactica, to by-the-book-to-a-fault Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny, to Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October, and many more. As you write that character’s scenes, you will imagine the chosen actor in that scene, and how they would have played it… what words they would use, and how… and how they would act and react to certain moments.
The good thing about this method is that, unlike Hollywood, you’re not restricted to using an actor who looks the role you are creating. Your big, tough drill sergeant can be Drew Barrymore in Charlie’s Angels, your wise-talking waitress can be Danny De Vito in Taxi. Your Tooth Fairy can be Dwayne Johnson. (Okay, wait…) Whatever cements the character for you is fair game.
Now, to an extent, you’re building on some character stereotypes and familiar tropes when you do this… and you should discover that it doesn’t always work for every character, including your main characters (who have hopefully been pretty well developed already). To mitigate this problem, you can choose an actor, but not a particular role, and try to imagine how the actor would portray your role. As in, imagine yourself as the director, telling the actor what they need to do in this scene, then stepping away and watching them do it for you. Imagine the differences in how Jackie Chan or Lucy Liu would play an Asian businessperson in an American business negotiation gone wrong, or how Ian McShane or Denzel Washington would handle a father whose son just went missing.
And you can mix and match: Suppose you want the strong characteristics of a C.C.H. Pounder… but the looks of Angela Bassett? Or the neurotic humor of Woody Allen with the appearance of Wayne Brady? Why not? Go for it.
And don’t think you can only use obvious actors and roles… dig around. Pull a few out of the not-so-popular movies and programs that are among your personal favorites (makes it harder for readers to finger the actor you’re using). Try Bill Cosby from I Spy… Catherine Schell from The Return of the Pink Panther… Burgess Meredith from The Twilight Zone… Gabrielle Anwar from The Grave… Peter Falk from Robin and the Seven Hoods… and all those anonymous character actors and actresses in every B movie you’ve ever seen (hey, wasn’t that guy in an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies?). The list is endless.
It might help to add these to your character notes as you create them… maybe jot down two or three actors and roles, and narrow them down as you develop other characters, or as they are introduced in the story. Then run with those characters, and you’ll discover how easy it is to let them do their thing, and give your story the needed color and personality it craves.
I used the casting approach liberally to create the characters for my novel Verdant Skies.