I am NOT one of those people who wonder why they have a TV because they never watch it. No…not me. I enjoy my entertainment in many forms…and I immerse myself in a fair amount of television. I have current favorites of course, and not surprisingly that list mirrors my interest in reading/writing (mystery, horror, and crime drama to name a few). My DVR plays a steady stream of Sherlock, Elementary, NCIS, Major Crimes (formerly The Closer), The Strain, Supernatural, Penny Dreadful, Homeland, Agents of Shield, and so on and so on.
On a separate, but tangently related note, I’ve been noticing that when I attend writer’s conferences many of the speakers tend to reference movies and television when they’re trying to illustrate a point. Just a couple of weeks ago I listened to popular author give a talk about developing plot twists, but all of the examples he cited were from popular cinema.
My topic for today involves something you can do in literature that, at times, is hard to pull off in visual media.
The stories in the movies and television we watch are told to us via actors. Actors that, if they’re talented enough and/or lucky enough, have inhabited many roles. There’s even such a category of actor called “Character Actor”, who according to Wikipedia, is a supporting actor skilled at playing distinctly unusual, interesting, or eccentric characters, such that they are almost unrecognizable from part to part, and yet play many, many roles convincingly and memorably. These are the actors who will always play the "tough and determined guy", or the "upstanding lady matriarch", a "sophisticated, sometimes ambiguously moral man", or a "calm, composed character with an edge and potential to explode". Ed Lauter, for example, usually portrayed a menacing figure because of his long, angular face which was easily recognized in public, although audiences rarely knew his name.
The inherent problem with character actors is that they accidentally telegraph future plot points. For example, an actor who commonly portrays someone with questionable ethics, will tip off where the story is heading just by the fact that actor was cast in the part (if you watch visual media fairly regularly). It’s a trapping of utilizing character actors to depict a certain personality in order to shortcut actual character development. It’s as if the screen writer sketches an outline of how a character will behave (their motivation) and the character actor helps fill the rest.
With our writing however, we have no such luxury…or ploy. In order for the reader to understand our characters, we must fill in all the blanks. There are no short cuts. There just aren’t. Sure, we’ll let them draw upon their own experiences…their prejudices…their rose color glasses to add context, but in the end it falls to us to breathe life into each and every player. The personality, disposition, mannerisms, and temperament of all of our characters come from inside us and cannot be outsourced to a character actor. The upside…there are no reader pre-conceptions other than their own proclivities.
It’s an awesome responsibility…but isn’t that what we signed up for?