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15 April 2009

When Life Imitates Art: Creating Characters

Have you ever "met" a character you created?

This phenomenon has occurred twice so far in my writing career. In my debut contemporary novel, Miss Match, a romantic comedy, I created the character of a self-important actor, Rick Byron, whose career was built on the shaky foundation of a megawatt smile rather than any discernable theatrical talent. In my mind, he physically resembled a hybrid of two "himbo" actors who began their careers in the '80s and who have had remarkable staying power, not just on the screen, but because of their respective tabloid-fodder marriages. The sandy hair, that killer grin ... and then, one night I caught an episode of one of America's most popular reality shows ... you know the one--where young people of limited vocal skills bend notes into pretzels in the hopes of winning a recording contract. And there on the television screen, hosting the show, was the character I had written.

The eeriest thing about seeing a very credible version of the character I'd invented was that I'd had so much fun writing Rick Byron that he made a second appearance as the fatuous host of the reality dating show that is at the center of my second novel, Reality Check -- written when reality TV was in its infancy and no one knew that it would take over the boob tube, thereby sending scads of professional actors and writers to the bread lines.

Although this exceptionally popular musical reality show might have been running at the time my novel hit the bookstores, it didn't yet exist when I created my character in both incarnations (as movie star and as reality show host); and, not being a viewer, I didn't see the real-life host until years after it was up and running. It was disconcerting, to say the least, to see a product of my imagination made manifest.

The second time I "met" a very reasonable facsimile of one of my characters was a couple of years later. A secondary character in Herself is Kelly Adonis, a tall, bald, gay, former Olympian diver and ex-commercial spokesman, now an aqua fitness instructor. While the novel was in the publishing pipeline, well past the copyediting stage, a substitute teacher filled in for one of the water aerobics classes at my gym -- and, good grief (!) there he was!

I'm wondering if there's a word for this phenomenon; why do I think it's the sort of thing Pam would know?

While we often draw our literary characters, and in particular the historical figures in our novels, partially from life models, what are the odds of it happening the other way? Have you ever had the same or a similar experience to mine? What was your reaction when you "met" your character?"

17 Comments:

Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

There oughta be a word for it, Amanda. But if there is -- sadly, I don't know it.

I haven't "met" any of my characters, but from time to time I've glimpsed one or another Carrie (from my Molly Weatherfield erotica), usually on public transportation, in San Francisco or maybe New York...

...and a few of my former colleagues at the august Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco are convinced that there's a REAL Carrie, that she works at the Fed (I couldn't summon up the guts to ask who), and that "Carrie" and I made each other's acquaintance via a cult out of Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut."

I'm honored by the Kubrick connection, and awed by the mischievous power of mimetic fiction.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That's fascinating, Amanda! Since I only write historical fiction, it's a bit harder to meet by characters. I have seen actors who seem uncannily like the characters I've written, both physically and in terms of the character I'm watching them play (this despite the fact that I had another character vividly in mind when I wrote the book). And there are scenes in the "Little Dorrit" that's on Masterpiece right now that look very like scenes in "Secrets of a Lady"--of course "Secrets" has a sequence in the Marshalsea Prison (inspired by the earlier, wonderful Christine Edzard films of the book), but there was also a scene in a coffee house in the first episode that looked startlingly like my image of a scene from my book.

9:22 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Pam, what is it about the women you've glimpsed on public transporation that make you see your erotic heroine? Their physical looks? Attitude? Something "knowing" about the way they sit or carry themselves?

I couldn't stomach "Eyes Wide Shut." It was self-indulgent, interminable, AND badly acted. I wanted those three hours of my life back. I vacuumed the house while I watched it--that's how much it held my interest. The cult was by far the most fascinating aspect, but for me there was no payoff. As a premise, it was interesting, but would have required a different script, actors, and an editor with a big pair of shears (so, maybe all the blame for my disenchantment with the flick falls on Kubrick's late shoulders)to have made me like the movie.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Tracy, I agree that it's harder to "meet" your characters when you pen historical fiction. I don't believe I've ever met any of mine from the Amanda Elyot novels, but I have seen certain personality types or what feel like very close physical types to some of my characters in film and television adaptations of other period novels.

I have seen actors who seem uncannily like the characters I've written, both physically and in terms of the character I'm watching them play (this despite the fact that I had another character vividly in mind when I wrote the book)I'd like to hear more about this, Tracy!

9:27 AM  
Blogger Christine Trent said...

I think I have the opposite problem. I tend to want to paint my characters, particularly the men, as actors I already know. Well, "know" in the cinematic sense. My biggest problem is not painting all of my heroes to look and act like Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. Gads, but that man is beautiful!

9:35 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Christine, my (happily married) sister has such an unabashed crush on Colin Firth that her husband teases her about it.

I'll give you another one to use as a model: Richard Armitage. He's the only reason to watch the BBC Robin Hood (He's Sir Guy) and he shines -- no, smolders -- as the hero of the BBC miniseries "North and South."

9:40 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Tracy: I have seen actors who seem uncannily like the characters I've written, both physically and
in terms of the character I'm watching them play (this despite the fact that I had another character vividly in mind when I wrote the book)

Amanda: I'd like to hear more about this, Tracy!

Tracy: I've always thought Matthew McFadyen would make a good Charles, but somehow I thought it particularly watching "Little Dorrit." Not that Arthur Clenham is that similar to Charles, though they do have some things in common, notably mysterious family histories, difficult relationships with their parents, and attempting to sort out how to do good in world. But somehow watching it I could hear him saying some of Charles's lines. It helps that the settings are so similar to settings in "Secrets", as I said.

When I saw "Casino Royale", I thought Eva Green would make a great Mélanie (and that's not even an historical movie). Not just appearance (dark, fine bone structure, beautiful, French) but mannerisms, edginess beneath the elegance.

I absolutely knew Jeremy Irons was Raoul O'Roarke when I saw "The Man in the Iron Mask." Now in that case, I was still plotting "Daughter of the Game/Secrets of a Lady", so I wrote the book with him in mind, but his character clicked into place when I saw the movie.

7:25 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Tracy: I've always thought Matthew McFadyen would make a good CharlesNooooooooooooooooooo! Please don't ruin Charles for me by saying this. *shudder* I still haven't recovered from the horror of watching his greasy, somnambulant Darcy.

12:16 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I'm with Kalen on this one, Tracy. Particularly with regard to his painfully execrable Darcy.

And besides, I've always seen your Charles as a man and MacFayden just looks too young and green to me. Not a man with experience and mileage, but a pup.

12:21 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I think it's so fascinating how people see characters differently! Kalen and Amanda, who would you see as Charles? I actually think one reason I thought he'd work as Charles in "Little Dorrit" was that he seems older and more world-weary, though what originally made me think he'd make a good Charles was MI-5. He isn't my image when I write Charles, but I still think he could play the part.

2:44 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Since (a) he can do the accent; and (b)can play dark, tormented, with a lot of life experience behind him; and (c) because everything he does is always interesting to watch ... Robert Downey Jr.

3:52 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I could see Robert Downey Jr. Though he has a comic/light edge that I don't see in Charles. He wouldn't have come to mind for me right off the bat . . .

I could see Richard Armitage (North and South). And I could totally see Anthony Howell (Foyle's War and Wives and Daughers), or Julian Ovenden (Foyle's War). I could also see Christian Bale. The intensity and intelligence work for the role.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I love the "casting game" because it gives such fascinating glimpses into how different readers see characters (and often reveals sides of the characters I hadn't considered) and really goes to my blog a while ago about how each reader reads a slightly different book.

I wouldn't have thought of Robert Downey Jr. either, but he's a very interesting suggestion---must think about that more. He could play pretty much any part, I think, but he has the light edge Kalen talks about... I'm not sure he's as "inward" as Charles.

Kalen, Christian Bale is actually someone else I've thought myself would make a great Charles. I could maybe see Richard Armitage too (I think Christian Bale has more of the "inward" quality, somehow). Who do Anthony Howell and Julian Ovendon play on Foyle's War?

1:03 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Anthony Howell is Sgt. Milner (I love his eyebrows; they're very straight and there’s something slightly sad about the expression they give his face).

Julian Ovendon plays Folye's son, Andrew.

1:41 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Kalen! I don't have a clear image in my head of either one--must watch some more Foyle's War episodes. I'm trying to work out why Christian Bale seems more "right" to me than Richard Armitage and Robert Downey Jr....

2:23 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Armitage is the man of the moment for me; I was utterly taken with his performance in "North and South." I agree with either guy from "Foyle's War," too, though they seem a little light. I'm thinking temperament as well as looks when I cast, even for fun -- though I've done it plenty of times for real.

I've seen Downey give some very tortured and dark performances (check out his resume on imdb.com and you'll see some of the dramas he's done.) He also brings his own demons (as well as his vulnerability) to the screen with him, which I think it particularly compelling vis-a-vis Tracy's character of Charles. Watch for him to play Sherlock Holmes (though the producers have buffed him up). Gee, why do I think the guy might know something about the seven percent solution?

There's a good actor under all the trash Bale has performed lately, but it's too well hidden these days for my taste, eclipsed by bad material. So he's no longer a standout in my mind. Colin Farrell does dark and tortured well, but he has a bit of an attitude for my taste so too often I feel like I'm watching the actor and not the character.

6:24 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Amanda, I think of temperament as well as looks when I cast for fun as well--in fact, as a writer, it's the temperament when I mentally cast that often gives me a sense of the character. Sometimes I've found a character won't click on the page until I have the right (or right for me) actor in mind. (Does anyone else find that?).

Downey has an amazing range as an actor, and a character actor's ability to disappear into the part. When I said he had a light edge, I wasn't thinking of his comic roles (which he does brilliantly) so much as that even playing dark, tortured characters there's a lightness underneath in a sense. On the other hand, that would actually be an interesting quality in someone playing Charles. Now I'm intrigued imagining some of the scenes with him in them...

I'm very exited to see him as Sherlock Holmes. (Which actually may make him seem more Charles-ish to me).

11:07 AM  

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