Friday, February 8, 2013

Things I Learned About Writing From Actors

by Brighton Luke

In addition to this whole novel thing, I also write screenplays, and was in New York this past summer directing a film I wrote, American Dreamsicle. One of the things that struck me was in talking with the actors about their characters, I realized a few things I could take back to my writing.

One of the actors who originally had been considered for Troy, the lead male character, asked if he could be considered for a supporting character, Mercer. At first I was surprised, because I myself am not an actor and I had wrongly assumed that when given the chance people would always go for the lead. He told me that he preferred the Mercer role because the character was really interesting and more of a challenge.

Looking back on it, I did a better job writing Mercer than I did Troy. He was more complex and thought-out, he was driving the plot even when he wasn’t on screen. He may even actually be the main character despite his far fewer minutes on screen. (I know, super embarrassing when you get who your main character is wrong.) As a writer for the screen it is obvious to say: write characters that actors will get excited to play, characters they will fight over to get cast as. I think it’s also an interesting way to think about writing characters in a novel as well, even if no actor will ever portray them. Think of a really kick-ass actor or actress you like and think: would they sign on to play this character? Because if it’s not a role that an actor would get excited about portraying, then chances are a reader isn’t going to find them all that compelling either.

Another thing I learned from the actors about character was about choices. It is so easy while writing to focus only on the big choices, the ones that really drive the plot. Will this character call the cops and report their friend, or will they help them cover up the crime? Big choice. And also a choice already made by the time the actor gets to it. For them the choices they get to make are smaller, choices about how they move, and subtleties in their interactions with others. They add up to a lot, and are something that when writing a novel you as the writer need to be making. I’ve had instances where it’s easy to get pulled into making choices for the character to serve the plot without thinking of what about that character’s personality would actually drive that choice.

The actors were always concerned with what their character’s motivation was, for freaking everything! (Which near the end of a 12-hour day I was tempted to say: because the script tells you to.) I remember one afternoon we were shooting on the pier at Coney Island. While waiting for a problem with the audio to be resolved, I was talking to the actors about the scene we were shooting, where these two characters who are best friends are having their last poignant moment before all hell breaks lose, and it was really important to establish the powerful brother/sister nature of their friendship.

In the script it simply has them walking back down the pier after their conversation, but Sarah Jean, the actress in the scene, suggested that right before they turn to leave they do this little finger touch thing, which is just this one second gesture, that could be so easily left out and not thought of, but it completely pulls the whole scene together and establishes their relationship so much better than any dialogue could. She arrived at that choice by looking back into her character and really thinking what would she do in this moment, not just doing what is convenient. The plot didn't need that action, but is enhanced by it. It’s those little details that enrich the story and make the characters more authentic, because it arises out of who they are.

So going back into novel writing those are some things I’ve taken with me. Write actor-bait characters, and try to look at choices from your character’s point-of-view, not just from a plotting standpoint.

Brighton Luke is a novelist, filmmaker, and purveyor of all things awesome. You can find Brighton (being forced to be much more concise) on Twitter @BrightonAwesome, and at


Jemi Fraser said...

"actor bait characters" is an awesome phrase! Love it! :)

SC Author said...

Awesome post! Write characters actors would be excited to play; I'm going to remember that one.

Rick Pieters said...

Love that finger-touching gesture example of the small things that say so much. Terrific post.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Terrific insight! It's all in the details....