Casting Characters

Writing references offer all sorts of strategies for devising characters, describing characters, and deepening characters, but it’s easy to get so caught up in creating individual dossiers that we may neglect thinking about the whole cast and whether it works effectively.

Let’s say you have a strong, vivid protagonist and a sly, snide, creepy antagonist. But will they work together? Or rather, I should say, will their personalities clash? Not because you’ve read that they should be in conflict but because their essential natures are like magnets repelling each other.

Or, you may have a strong, vivid heroine who’s to be the lead player in your romance story. You’ve concocted a hero who’s broad-shouldered, handsome, and possesses smoldering eyes. But is the chemistry right between them?

Is this pair going to ignite the pages or fizzle? Do you have Humphrey Bogart paired with Lauren Bacall or Humphrey Bogart paired with Audrey Hepburn? (If, by chance, this example makes no sense to you, compare the film TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT with SABRINA. You’ll see what I mean. SABRINA is a Billy Wilder gem that sparkles in all directions except for no spark between Bogart and Hepburn. It’s a baffling casting of those two actors.)

If you’re creating two characters who are best friends, do they have rapport? Let’s hope so, but if they do, why?

Ask yourself, how did they become friends? When did they meet? What happened then to create a bond between them? Why are they friends now? That isn’t to say you’ll be inserting all those answers into the story. But you need to know such information and keep it in the back of your mind so you can write the interaction of your characters from that foundation.

In the Dashiell Hammett story, THE GLASS KEY, Paul and Ed are lifelong friends who work together until they both fall in love with the same girl. Paul becomes a primary suspect in a murder. Ed wants to help him until he finds out Paul is lying to him. The men quarrel, but Ed’s belief in Paul’s innocence is never shaken. Achieving that kind of closeness–even between two tough guys in a noir novel–requires the creation of background. Hammett knew what it was, even if he didn’t share much of it in the story.

Presently, I’m working on a novel that involves a triangle. It’s hard enough working out the relationship of a couple, making sure they have the right traits to create sparks while being “right” for each other where it matters. A triangle complicates that task even more. I don’t want an obviously uneven group, where Mr. Wrong is so totally, obviously WRONG that only a blind, deaf, and senile bat would be attracted to him. I want Mr. Wrong to have good qualities and I want Mr. Right to be troublesome and unsettling to Miss Protagonist. Yet I must avoid going so far out on the unsettling scale that when she eventually chooses him it screams AUTHOR CONTRIVANCE.

While there are many variants of love triangles, I prefer to divide them into two basic categories: simple and complicated. These are only labels for author convenience. Don’t judge the merits of a story by them because either type can be effective.

SIMPLE: Let’s consider the Tolstoy novel, ANNA KARENINA. It’s been adapted into at least two films–one starring Vivian Leigh and a recent one starring Keira Knightley. Tolstoy is convoluted and enamored of many entwined subplots, but basically the triangle consists of the beautiful Anna, her elderly and distant husband, and the dashing young officer she falls in love with. Anna is torn between love and obligation. If she follows her heart, she will destroy her marriage, her social standing, her financial security. She will be denied access to her only child. She will be ostracized by society.

Simple? Yes, in that it’s clearcut and direct. We understand it immediately. That detracts in no way from its powerful effect. The very simplicity allows the emotional costs facing these characters to be potent indeed.

The modern novelist Danielle Steel can’t be likened to Tolstoy, but she has used the simple triangle numerous times, with a great deal of success.

COMPLICATED: Consider an old romantic comedy film called THE TALK OF THE TOWN, starring Jean Arthur, Cary Grant, and Ronald Colman. Grant’s character has been framed for a crime he didn’t commit and is on the lam, hiding from authorities. Colman’s character is a pillar of the law, under consideration as a Supreme Court judge. Jean Arthur is attracted to both men, and the audience is kept guessing which one she’ll choose right up to the very end. If you watch the film inattentively, you’ll miss the turning point and what factor decides her. Each man is very different from the other, yet they have a great deal in common. Both are equally intelligent, rational thinkers. Both are handsome and appealing. Both men need Miss Arthur’s help.

But perhaps you aren’t writing a triangle. Instead, you’ve got an ensemble cast of characters. Let’s examine the group in the science-fiction film, GALAXY QUEST. The characters play actors who once were on a hit television show and now they survive through residuals and paid appearances at conventions. We have the following basic types:

*The big ego
*The sexy babe
*The jealous neurotic
*The grown-up child
*The stoner
*The clown

All of them, except the clown, have issues with the big ego. Those issues fuel the personal conflict crisscrossing the storyline. Such conflict keeps the story advancing quickly because it either fills points in the main plot that would otherwise sag or it adds complications to the trouble the group is in. Who in the group are allies? Who in the group is the most exasperating to the others? Who nurtures? Who goads? Who whines and complains?

If at least some of the group can serve as foil characters to the others, this can be useful to keep conflict and chemistry going. Foils, as I’m sure you know, are opposites in personality and behavior. Besides the human actors, GALAXY QUEST serves up additional ensemble groups in secondary roles–the alien group and the kids who are devoted fans. The script pulls on these secondary groups as needed to serve as comedic contrasts to the actors.

What you don’t want, in an ensemble cast, is a row of similar types–for example, all shy introverts–who are going to sit still in perfect agreement. BORING!

Other film examples of lively ensemble casts would include STEEL MAGNOLIAS, I REMEMBER MAMA, and TWELVE ANGRY MEN. The latter is focused on twelve jurors locked in a non-air-conditioned room on a hot summer’s day, forced to work together in order to reach a verdict in a murder trial. They’re all quite different and distinctive from each other. Their roles clash terrifically as they attempt to sift through contradictory evidence.

Don’t let these considerations overwhelm you. Create your lead characters–your protagonist and antagonist–first. Build their personalities and check their chemistry of antagonism to be sure it works. Then build their ring of friends or cohorts, one at a time. Minimize the number of characters as much as you can. You’ll find it easier to handle.

Ask yourself, if I were a casting director in a movie, would I hire these characters? Do they have chemistry enough to carry their roles?

If you’re inexperienced at writing, especially long fiction, you may not be able to judge in advance the potential chemistry combinations between your characters. At least, not until you’ve written a big chunk of rough draft. That’s okay. As the characters speak and take action in scenes, they’ll grow more definitive–or some of them will crumble from weak design.

You’ll discover as you go who needs to be reworked. Just keep the sparks flying.

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