I recently returned home from Costa Rica. We had no TV there, just DVDs. Our neighbor loaned us American Graffiti, which I’m embarrassed to say I’d never completely seen, even though it was filmed in my home county - Sonoma County, California.
American Graffiti’s a classic. It was the 2nd film George Lucas directed and it was produced by Francis Ford Coppola. Impressive. Still, I didn’t find the characters in the film compelling. Interesting perhaps, but not compelling.
The movie stands more for it’s crystallization of a moment in time, the reader’s digest version of teenage life in the 1960’s. Digests and compelling characters don’t always go together.
However, I did find the “Personal Story” addendum to the movie fascinating. It delineated the casting process, which was lengthy. George Lucas wanted the perfect actor for each unique character. Much care was taken, not only in choosing the right actor for each character, but the right combination of actors.
Casting our stories with care is also what we, as children’s book writers, should do, thinking about which character gets which part and who performs each action and who says what words.
A few years ago I was working on a chapter book with a spunky eight-year-old as the main character. I was in Germany, taking a leisurely rowboat ride down a river, with several other boats in front of me, when I saw her. Ahead of me, sitting near a large dog, turning her head back and forth to view the sights, was the spitting image of my main character. Actually, my main character’s physical attributes had always been a little foggy before that moment. But no more. There she was, my Abigail. Short red hair. Glasses. A pink striped t-shirt. And a steady gaze on the world. Did I mention that my Abigail character has a huge dog in my story? Serendipity at its best.
Whether your characters are human or animal, be aware of those around you who might be the perfect actor for your starring role.
What might help you become a better casting director? Try this. When you’re waiting for your flight or for your child at school or if you’re in a restaurant or a park, make up stories about the people, the strangers you see around you. Cast characters. Establish relationships.
Over there is a small child going home after a trip with her grandparents. She’s traveling by herself on an airplane, reluctantly returning to her single mother. That silly stuffed rabbit was a gift from her grandmother, and the child, whose name is Jazzy, is already best friends with it. It will always remind her of the homey feel of Grammy Lou and Granpy Richie’s big ranch house, so different from the cramped apartment where she lives.
This can be an entertaining and fun way to practice your craft. I suspect many of you creative souls already observe and view the world with a curious gaze and are practicing a similar type of storytelling already.
Last week, I had the pleasure of a long phone conversation with my editor. We talked about the woodland characters in the picture book I’m working on. Confession time: I usually don’t do character sketches, working instead, largely through intuition. But how my intuition works can be challenging to explain and intuition can leave out important pieces of a story puzzle.
My editor asked the age of my two main characters and wanted specific information about their relationship and actions. It soon became obvious I needed to take a bit more care with my casting.
When I hung up the phone the first thing I did was open Scrivener and start posting images of each of my characters there. I pulled these from the Internet, mostly using Google Images, but also just searching “bear” or “mole.” This will help me get to know them, to think about their ages, relationships, personalities, strengths, weaknesses…their essential nature.
Should Mole be the grumpy friend or would that part better go to Bear? Is Walrus going to be the sailor or should that role go to Albatross?
(Note: Names have been changed to protect story integrity.)
It can be illuminating to take a picture book and switch the characters, noting how this would change the feel and theme of the story. Would havoc arise if you switched the roles of Bear and Mouse in A Visitor for Bear? What would happen if you switched who said what in the Elephant and Piggy series?
Take care with your casting, creators. Because part of what makes a great character is great casting.
Called a “born storyteller” by the media, Marsha Diane Arnold wrote the award-winning “homegrown treasures” column prior to penning eleven award-winning picture books. Marsha recently contracted with Neal Porter Books for two new picture books and Kate O'Sullivan of Houghton Mifflin for another, coming out in 2016. She grew up on a Kansas farm, but today creates imaginative worlds and wacky characters in northern California surrounded by her garden, deer, hummingbirds, turkeys, oaks, and redwoods. Marsha's course Writing Wonderful Character-Driven Picture Books has helped many published and aspiring writers to write stronger characters. You may read about her books, school and Skype visits, and life at www.marshadianearnold.com.
Meet the Friday Blogonauts
First Fridays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer , man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
Second Fridays will feature awesome multi-award winning author Marsha Diane Arnold who will be writing about character-driven and/or nature-based books and/or anything she likes :)
Third Fridays will feature independent Aladdin/Simon & Shuster editor Emma Sector who has helped bring many books into the world.
Fourth Fridays will feature the great Christine Taylor-Butler who has published over 70 award-winning fiction and non-fiction and nonfiction books including the acclaimed new middle grade series - The Lost Tribes.
Fifth Fridays will feature the fabulous Carl Angel award-winning multi-published Illustrator and graphic designer.
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