Thursday, December 8, 2011

Which Comes First—The Casting or The Character?


By P.I. Barrington

Casting Photo of Snow White and The Huntsman (2012)

I'm a big proponent of "casting" characters. Hell, I’m probably the concept's head cheerleader! You most likely know by now that the practice of "casting" your characters with photos of actors/athletes/models and, on occasion, just regular people you'd love to see them play on the screen is widely used by authors for cover art and character inspiration. But there's a whole other dimension to just picking a headshot of a handsome, dreamy actor who you think looks like the character in your head and in your plot.

It reminds me of the ancient conundrum of which came first the chicken or the egg but with an authorly twist (yeah, I just made that adverb up) and deciding which does depends on just how you create that character. That takes looking at and understanding your own creative process.

What comes first in your character creation: The name? The personality quirks? The character's job? Or is it the physical description? All of these items figure into your character's birth and many times the order in which they arrive can surprise you—in a good way.

Casting characters first:

The development of characters can come from the casting pictures and great detail can express itself as well. If you picture your character as blonde, blue-eyed and short, those three features present you with several possibilities at once. Is the character from a certain heritage or location in his or her world, say Scandinavian or British which then begs the questions of their family history, structure and views of society and their places in it. Is that character out of his/her element? How do they react to their current situation—do they adapt well or struggle throughout the story? How do they view themselves if they're short or petite—positive or negative—and what develops in their personality as the result of that view? Are they resentful or fearful of people taller than themselves? Do they view themselves as attractively petite like Blanche Devereaux of Golden Girls? How do they style their hair? Do they wear it with no fuss or do they make a great work of styling it? Something as simple as the way they wear their hair can expose a particular quirk in their personality—no nonsense or excessive extravagant—or keep something they're hiding secret.

The casting photo you choose can offer abilities, career choices, and everything from likes and dislikes to what sports or hobbies they enjoy depending on their physical characteristics such as body type. If you find a photo of a tall, dark woman who appears (in your casting photo of course) athletic, her abilities could include strength, agility and sports ability; or a willowy supermodel type. The same is true for men and young characters or child characters. Matching up characters with their jobs according to physical characteristics can be predictable or unpredictable too. You might have a tall willowy brunette with waist length hair who excels in computer science and avoids exercise altogether or your muscular, athletic looked red-haired male might be a banker rather than a soccer player. Sometimes mixing things up can be interesting for both you and your reader—it keeps you on your toes as a writer trying to make that character either consistent or wildly impulsive and keeps your reader guessing as to what choice the character will make in a pinch.

Emotions can be represented in casting photos too and can be the most important part of casting since it directly relates to character. I believe I need to illustrate this section with a little anecdote that happened to me when I working on my first crime thriller, Crucifying Angel. When the time came for my input sheet to assist my publisher's cover artist, I needed to find a picture of the male romantic rival of the hero. I already knew what Nick Kincaid looked like I just needed to find someone to show my cover artist. After a long search I located a headshot that I thought was perfect. I immediately sent it to her. After the cover was finished and the book out, I thought I might search for more photos of "Nick" since he was a recurring character in the Future Imperfect trilogy. I cannot express the absolute shock of finding all the other photos of the actor—they were of a grey-haired older man in at least his late sixties! I talked to my Editor and informed her of this situation. She laughed and said, "Sometimes it's the lighting, mood, and angle that makes all the difference!" And after the trilogy was finished, I accidentally found another actor who personified Nick and really was younger!

I digress. As in the anecdote, you can pin the personality of your character from one of those moody shots. A headshot usually works best for this, especially if you can find the "lighting mood and angle" that speaks to you as your character. A child's headshot that appears innocent, sweet and happy or one that looks angry (yes there are some—I have one as an avatar lol!) or spoiled can act as catalyst to create an unusual child character with a deep or shallow personality. The same goes for teenage or young adult casting photos. Your teenager can look like either a mathematical genius nerd or exuberant cheerleader but flip the coin and he/she can be full of angst, resentment, attitude, insecurity or hormones.

Most fun of all can be casting your hero/heroine! Here's where you get to dive into your favorite characteristics. You can let fly with the romance, strength, softness, anything you love giving your characters (or they tell you they like) and if you like pretty men and women, hit the actors' websites! (Remember this is only for your fantasy personal casting, you do not have any rights to use the casting shots for anything else!) I've found tall, dark, moody and powerful (& don't forget the pretty) heroines and I've found casting shots of women of every type from tall, athletic to petite and barely able to hold a weapon steady. Another example of casting first that worked perfectly is the main heroine of CA, Payce Halligan—I happened to be easing boredom by checking out avatar sites and there was a medium close-up shot of a blonde woman shooting target practice. At that time I did not know what I could possibly use her for but when I started the novel, she gave me the basis for Payce, a Las Vegas Police Department Homicide Detective.

And last, casting first can give you the most important part of your character: their conflicts! Payce Halligan had major guilt demons, the kind you wouldn't expect her to possess, and they offset the tough, strong police woman normally expected, giving her a depth that could not be imagined. This came from that one casting photo I found that I shelved until I needed it. This type of casting can work on any character in your novel, major to minor, and especially your villain! He/she can look like a mousy, uninteresting bore harboring a raging demon inside or be as beautiful as an angel but be a pretty version of The Mad Hatter!

Casting characters is one of my favorite parts of writing and publishing. It can trigger unbelievable creativity as well as help dictate your plot in the direction it should go to keep it as great as you know it is; it can also assist your writing technique in character development! I even gave it a name: my Virtual Casting Couch! Let the auditions begin!

PIBarrington photoAfter a decade long detour through the entertainment industry, P.I. Barrington has returned to her roots as a novelist writing in several genre' including futuristic crime thrillers, paranormal crime thrillers, science fiction and fantasy, and the occasional humor shorts. Among her past careers is radio air talent and journalist. Barrington lives in Los Angeles California (where else?) in a rural area where she watches semi-wild horses grazing behind her house! She has just released her dark, science fiction adventure, Isadora DayStar, available from Smashwords. P.I. Barrington can be contacted via emails: or and has a blog and website: Blog: and official website:


jenny milchman said...

Very interesting approach, PI. I think I am one of those writers who relies very little on physical description--or even images in my head. I wonder if everyone will have their own image of my characters that way? Maybe I will try some of your tips!

T. Denise Robinson said...

I can honestly say that I've never used actors as a guide to creating my characters but I can see where that would be a good place to start. I first come up with the age of my character, what they look like, and then the name. I then work up bios for them. Sometimes it's as little as one page and sometimes as many as three. I might try the actor headshot thingy next time. Nice article - Thank you.

Dee S. said...

When I created the Angel Crawford Series Jason Momoa (Stargate Atlantis, Conan the Barbarian) was my muse. So I guess I cast my book before I wrote it and didn't know it.

I do use Scrivener software to build my novels. I drop photos of people, places, weapons, everything in there. Having a visual helps me a great deal.

I think this is a fun discussion. P.I. thanks for sharing this with us.

P.I. Barrington said...

It's funny Jenney, while I do use "casting" I also don't write too much physical description of my characters either! The reason is that when I used to read (barely do so now) I'd immediately form a picture in my head, regardless how the author described the character. If my first impression was a tall redhead, she/he was that way through the entire story! I'm trying to remember to give a little more than a basic description, lol!

P.I. Barrington said...

Denise, I rarely used to cast myself before the advent of the Internet and my first publisher asking me to fill out a cover art input sheet! I found that so helpful that I use it all the time now. Thank you!!

P.I. Barrington said...

Dee, I don't use a program other than Word. But I do keep photos in it as well. It helps me too to have a visual on a character!

Anonymous said...

As a writer my characters start out as fuzzy images with no real image but I get to know them the more I write. I couldn't do it the other way round as they wouldn't feel like they were mine.
As a reader I really hate books with a picture of the character on the front, I don't like to be shown what they look like I need to do that myself from the description on the book.
Then when they make it into a film or tv show I can sit and scream at the screen because they've got it all wrong :)
Gill Shutt

P.I. Barrington said...

Gill, yeah, that's what I was saying to Jenny--no matter what the author described, I always had my own idea of what they should look like! I never thought I'd like casting, but it really did assist and now it's hard for me to live without it, lol! I also used to get upset with film casting...the most perfect casting I've ever seen was LOTR and that was with both known and unknown actors! Oh and GWTW again! Thank you so much for stopping by I really am thankful that you took the time!

Liz said...

I use this technique for my heroes. Always picturing them in my head as they are doing and saying things.

My hero in Love By Design is based on Josh Holloway from Lost. In Playing For Keeps it's Kevin Nash, a former WWE wrestler.

And now in my work-in-progress it's Vin Diesel. It REALLY works.

P.I. Barrington said...

I know Liz. I Tweeted yesterday that if someone had told me I'd be casting Vin I'd have laughed in their face! But he's perfect for my guy--just a little older than he is though...oh and thanks for stopping by and commenting! I really do appreciate it!!

Elisabeth Hirsch said...

I LOVE this. What a neat approach. This really got me thinking :)

P.I. Barrington said...

Thanks so much Elizabeth!!

Loni Emmert said...

I never used to cast characters first but once I tried it I was hooked. Great post.

P.I. Barrington said...

Thank you Loni! I'm absolutely hooked too! I don't know how I ever wrote without the Internet!