Is this how you cast your hero?
Visit my Casting Couch to discover the different tricks writers use to find the characters who populate their books. Whether they use magazine advertisements, astrology, or something else entirely, their techniques give a fascinating insight into the writing process and the writers themselves
Today, multi-published writer Janet Lane Walters tells us how she does it
How do writers cast their characters? Mine are usually inspired by a photograph. I see an interesting face and the writer in me begins to weave it into a story. It's very satisfactory because I can make complete strangers into just about anyone I want. Occasionally it isn't a photo but someone in the media although never, so far, anyone from the big screen. And even more occasionally, although I never admit to it, a real live person I meet. What I can't do, however, is start with a list of personality traits and build from there. My character has to have a face before I can begin to know them although I guess that deep down I am probably looking for a face that fits with who I want them to be. Realizing that my take on character development is idiosyncratic to say the least, I began to wonder how other writers find their characters so I decided to ask them to visit my Casting Couch to find out.
Janet Lane Walters is the first visitor to the Casting Couch, and with 35 published novels, 4 non fiction books, 2 ghostwritten non fiction books and ten novellas to say nothing of numerous short stories and poetry, who better to answer my questions.
Hi Janet and thanks for visiting the Casting Couch. Now, assuming you're sitting comfortably, which characters are the hardest for you to develop? Is it the hero, the heroine, the villain, or the secondary characters?
I can usually nail the hero and heroine, though sometimes they give me trouble, and I have little problem with the villains. It's the secondary characters that sometimes give me fits. Unless I’m writing an ensemble piece where all the characters have a significant role in a story, my secondary characters try to take over, and that isn’t their role. When I was writing A Double Opposition, characters like the twins, Pop and Megan, wanted to take on a larger role. I spent a lot of time looking at their parts of the story and toning them down.
I’ve also read stories where the secondary characters seemed more important than the major ones. It always disappoints me to learn that the story isn’t theirs. That’s what I must keep reminding myself.
I really identify with that Janet, and I know I've made that mistake in my own books too...but back to the casting couch. When an idea strikes, do you work through the plot first and then cast the characters, or is it characters first? Or does it vary? Perhaps you develop the plot and the characters together.
I admit to all of the above. When I began writing Code Blue the villain arrived full of himself and of his plans for revenge. The other characters changed as I wrote the book. Julie was to be the heroine but that didn’t make the story move along. Once the heroine changed to Susan, a perfect foil for the villain, the story took off. I guess in this case the characters came first and last.
Can you give examples from the stories you’ve written?
When I began the Affinity series, published under my alter ego, J. L. Walters, the characters came first. They remained essentially unchanged since they were based on my grandchildren at the time. The plot came later and turned from a single book to four.
The plot for The Temple of Fyre came before the characters. I told the entire story in my head with no names and no personalities except for good woman, bad woman, good man, as I outlined the plot. No names until I sat down and decided what kind of people would take on these roles and what their natures would be, and gave them their Astrological signs.
That is so interesting. I've heard of writers who use Tarot or Astrology but never met one before.
Yes, I always use Astrology to cast my characters. I’ve been involved in it for years. I used to do charts for people and then interpret them, so using it to develop my characters seems a natural thing to do.
I don’t go as far as some people and cast an entire chart though, and I only do it for the major characters. What I do is look at the Sun, Moon, and Rising Sign. This gives me three facets of the character’s nature and it also provides me with clues as to their goals and the motives behind their desires. The Sun is their inner nature. It’s what they are inside. The Moon gives me their emotions and tells me how they react to situations. The Rising Sign gives me the face they show the world. Conflicts can arise in any of these areas of course, and so can their desires and the reasons for this.
So Astrology tells you who your characters are but surely you still have to discover how they look. Do you use magazine pictures, base them on someone you know, or do you just rely on an active imagination?
I rather envy writers who can look at movie stars or magazine pictures and say that’s just what their characters look like. I don’t even use my friends, neighbors or acquaintances when I am deciding how my hero or heroine looks. For me, it’s imagination and writing the words down, though I will say my heroes usually fit a type. Most of them are tall, with broad-shoulders and trim bodies. Hair and eye color will vary. My heroines can be different and unusual but they are always beautiful to the hero, even if they are plain.
All characters have goals. Can you sum up your characters' goals in a word or two or are they multi-layered? Do they change as you write the book?
I usually have at least one goal for each of the main characters and also for some of the secondary ones, especially if their goal is in opposition to those of the main characters. Sometimes they will have the kind of goals that make them think if I gain this, then I’ll reach for this.
Can you give an example from one of your published books?
When I was writing A Double Opposition, my heroine’s goal was to find a way to remove her twin sons from the bad influences they had found in the city. Her second goal was to do a good job on a hospital unit where there was trouble. She wasn’t thinking about finding love or marriage. Her final goal comes after her sons go missing and the hero helps her find them. It is then that she realizes there is a chance for a second love and for a family.
Motives drive a character. How do you discover why your characters have specific goals? Is this all based on back story or do other elements influence their motives?
I often don’t know what my characters’ back stories are when I begin to write. That usually comes after a draft or two when suddenly I know what is happening. The book I am writing at the moment, Lines of Fire, begins with the hero at his father’s deathbed. The scene began before the story was plotted or the character developed. I didn’t even know the hero’s name but the deathbed scene gave me his motivations and these remained throughout the book, although with some slight changes as other characters impacted on his life. In this case the back story played an important part.
In other stories the ‘why’ doesn’t occur until I have at least a rough draft of the story. Then there’s an ‘aha’ moment as I learn what drives them toward a goal that may, or may not be, attainable.
Listening to how you cast your characters has been very interesting Janet, but there's still one more. Do you like them? Are they people you would want to spend time with? And, as I'm assuming they are not just a paper exercise, which of your characters would you most like to meet, and why?
Do I like my characters? Absolutely and while I write I live with them. They’re always in my head. As to which one I’d most like to meet, I have met some of them already. They’re my grandchildren but that’s not a fair answer to this question.
Right now I’d like to meet Alric who hasn’t seen print yet. Why? Several reasons. He’s a dueler and that reminds me of the days when I was fencing. He also sees the lines of fire and that fascinates me, even though I made it up. He’s handsome and brave too. But when I’m writing, I always want to meet my heroes and heroines. I’m rather fickle.
Thank you for spending time on the Casting Couch Janet. It's been great to talk to you.
If you would like to learn more about Janet Lane Walters visit her blog at http://wwweclecticwriter.blogspot.co.uk or read more about her on the Books We Love website