Whenever I’m writing a major character, I generally use a well known actor as my initial template. The question I keep in the forefront of my mind is; what would that person sound like speaking the words and performing the actions of that character? How would they play that role? What gestures would they use to interpret my character?
Today I’m working on ‘A Falling of Angels’ where Charles Hertford, spymaster and master manipulator is creating a situation where my hero can expose the bad guys and yet not bring down the government in the process. The physical template I’m using for Hertford is the current James Bond, actor Daniel Craig. In my head, I hear Craig speak Hertfords lines, see him make the gestures and generally perform the part. Likewise, my hero, mind reading detective Paul Calvin, loosely uses the voice and interpretation style of film actor Clive Owen. Which for me helps keep my characters consistent, and hopefully a little more credible. Chief Inspector Veeta Parnay for example, is based around the style of another Bond movie star, Naomie Harris.
It’s a bit of a cheat I know, but when you’re trying to avoid stereotypes it works for me. Having spent some time at drama classes I’m always reminded that a little spontaneity keeps a character fresh and hopefully interesting to a reader and I try to bear this in mind. Sometimes it all falls over and a character can feel a bit flat because this internal shorthand doesn’t translate very well to the page. Which is always the risk you take. Sometimes I’ll even try combining two actor styles and imagine a cross between say, Anthony Hopkins and Morgan Freeman (Hertfords Boss) in a role. If I want someone mature and smoothly sinister, I’ll begin with a composite of say, Ian Richardson and Ian McKellan. In the theatre of my head, it’s always a great help to close my eyes and see the character I’ve created make the gesture and speak the words I’ve written. As they’re such familiar screen icons it makes it easier for me to wring the words out of my keyboard.
There is a school of thought that states one should always base characters on real live people, but that can and does backfire. Particularly in libel suits. For myself I’ll continue steering to the windy side of the law and imagine how a specific actor would play my character.