A Helpful Hint for Writers

Charles Laughton sometimes had trouble getting into the character he was playing. When that happened, he suffered agonies. So did the producer and director. Laughton was usually the star of the movie, and when he stopped, the whole show had to stop. That could get very expensive.

On occasion, Laughton broke out of the jam when he suddenly “found the man.” Someone else, often a real person, would become for him the character he was trying to play. By using this real person as his model for the character, Laughton would be able to play his role. He was a great artist, but don’t ask me to explain how thinking of the real-life Edward VIII suddenly showed him how he should play Claudius the Roman emperor.

I use a similar method when a character won’t come alive for me. If you’ve tried to write fiction, here’s a trick that might come in handy.

Most of my fictional characters don’t need any special help to come to life, but there’s always somebody who can’t quite make it. In The Glass Bridge, which I’m currently writing, Lord Chutt suddenly came alive when I “found the man” in British actor John Nettles, who plays Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby in Midsomer Murders. I sincerely hope I don’t have to pay him for this: but as soon as I imagined Nettles playing Lord Chutt in a movie, I had the character–bingo! Worked like a charm.

I often do this with a book I’m reading. When I read The Lord of the Rings, I “see” and “hear” Strider/Aragorn as Charlton Heston. Elrond is Leonard Nimoy, Saruman is Vincent Price, and so on. This makes my reading experience much more vivid; and I’ve learned to do it in my writing.

So, to those of you who are taking a crack at writing fiction, try envisioning your story’s characters as played by some of your favorite actors.

It works for me.



4 comments on “A Helpful Hint for Writers

  1. Very interesting! But my question is, who do you use for Wytt? Robert Knight, in his book review you posted back on 10/4, said that Wytt “is consistently fascinating and steals any passage that he’s in”. How true. My kids always look forward to Wytt as I read (now completing the Thunder King)–and so do I!

    1. Wytt never needed any help along those lines. I didn’t create him; it’s more like I met him one day. I suppose you might say he was initially inspired by Tarzan’s monkey, Nkima–but only very loosely. You can tell your kids that Wytt sort of does what he wants and I have to keep up with him.

  2. Problem: I have never been a movie-goer! The number of movies I’ve seen would do me no good! What shall I do? I think of someone I know , whether well or just casually, and my character, being made from real life comes alive for me. Thanks, anyway.

    P. S. who knows, your character may come up in one of my stories someday!

    1. Well, Dorothy, I write fantasy, and most of the people I know from real life would just totally plotz if they were put into the kinds of situations I write about. I’m not ready to write a heroic fantasy featuring characters who panic, faint, spout gibberish, run away, or cry whenever something happens. So I kind of have to use movie actors playing roles.

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