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Secrets of the Silver Screen: Distinctive Characters

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting [1]This past Saturday marked the 216th birth-versary of musical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Recently, I watched the special edition director’s cut of one of my favorite flicks – the fantastical, academy award winning movie Amadeus [2]. With 20 extra minutes of never-before-released footage and a 2nd disc dedicated to interviews on the making of the movie, this music/film aficionado was in heaven. The director’s notes – as always – proved fascinating, but I was especially struck with what the filmmakers had to say about casting characters.

Casting for Amadeus was an arduous process. At one point producer Saul Zaentz tallied the number of actors they’d auditioned at 1,263 – and they weren’t yet finished. Said director Milos Forman:

Of course you start with the main characters and then you go down. But down doesn’t mean less important. I think the small parts are as important as the main characters. In a certain way, I pay more attention to casting the small, bit parts because they will have to be …(pauses)…once you see them, you will never forget them. Nothing drives me more crazy when I am watching a film and somebody appears, then disappears and then reappears. And he looks like the guy who was just there, and I’m asking ‘Who is he? Who is she?’ 

Distinctive. Those secondary characters must be distinctive. But how to make it happen?

In film, perhaps the only thing that seems distinctive about a character is their clothing style or the way they wear their hair. But probably not. Their overall manner, the way they carry themselves or speak, their habits, the way they regard others – any and/or all of these things can help set a character apart from the pack.

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It’s something to attend to as writers, though we’re relying solely on word painting to show these distinctions. Says Todd Stone in Novelist’s Boot Camp [3]:

Writers have only a few seconds to provide readers with an emotional understanding of their characters’ personalities. If this understanding is postponed for too long, it becomes difficult for readers to emotionally connect with the characters. Smart writers expedite this process by leveraging stereotypical markers to give their readers starting points for placing, defining, and understanding a character. These markers go beyond descriptions of sex, race, age, hair length and style, height, weight, and eye color to provide detailed information and insight.

I have to admit that I bristled the first time I read Stone’s advice; it just sounded too pat and as though the end result would birth caricatures instead of authentic characters. Put the tough character in a leather jacket and give him a scar. Have the high-brow order a vodka martini and notice the quality of the crystal. The absent-minded professor has to have something mis-buttoned, right? Urg. Double urg.

But then I thought about it in terms of Amadeus and what Forman said about distinctive characters, because I knew Stone was right about this much: It’s important to create a reader-to-character understanding as early in the story as possible to keep those pages flipping.

An exercise in stereotyping. Okay.

I tried to encapsulate the characters of Amadeus into a single pat word, figuring it would never work out. I was surprised to find it could be done. One man is foolhardy, another covetous. Others are pious, superior, ambitious, desperate, curious, good-humored, intimidating, bossy and condescending.

So was my favorite movie filled with one-note characters? Not really. Mozart is certainly more than a foolhardy composer and Salieri more than his covetous adversary. But they are the leads, and the writers can afford for you to first grasp the most predominant character layer before revealing others (and they do; study the focus in the first scenes of the movie).

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Secondary characters are handled differently. You don’t need to know more about the priest than he is a pious man to tell the story of Amadeus. You don’t need to know more about the mother-in-law than she is a tufthunter. You don’t need to know more about the opera singer than she is ambitious, or more about the maid than she is desperate. Etcetera. And in fact to know much more about them would be to bog down the story.

Hmm. I think I have some distinctive characters in my wip–the repressed, the tenacious, the combative, the intuitive–though I’m going to spend some time this week thinking about how I’m unfolding them on the page. How about you? Define your characters. What separates them from the pack? And if you haven’t seen the movie Amadeus, do yourself a huge favor and see it soon. It’s as timeless as Prague itself.

Write on, all!

About Therese Walsh [4]

Therese Walsh co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [5], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [6] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [7], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [8] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [9] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [10]). Learn more on her website [11].