Real-world people as models for characters?

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Rachel Ventura
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Real-world people as models for characters?

Post by Rachel Ventura » November 3rd, 2011, 10:05 pm

Question (I originally asked this in a different format elsewhere, but am sort-of xposting just in case my original Q gets somehow lost in the shuffle).

Maybe because I'm one of those who's been "poisoned" by movies, TV and other media, when I'm writing or coming up with a story I tend to have a specific person in mind as who I feel best fits the "role," as though it were a movie or TV adaptation. So as I wrote in the other thread, an example would be if I were writing Catcher in the Rye in the '80s as a (muuuuuch) milder American Psycho, in which case the bad-boy teenage rebel Caulfield would be the bad-boy teenage rebel Charlie Sheen. Were it still the '50s, easily James Dean, Elvis, Marlon Brando or Sal Mineo would be candidates for the role, if it were optioned as a screenplay.

As such, I find it difficult to "describe" the characters any more, or even try to work out what I'd say, than "dark, brooding, and always in trouble, young, handsome, brilliant -- and headed for disaster, he was a 'rebel without a cause,' the James Dean of his neighborhood, the Charlie Sheen of his family." Or "The new doctor on the cardiac wing made hearts skip a beat and blood pressure leave the stratosphere, every bit a George Clooney or Patrick Dempsey." Something like that. Or without the names, just a visual image I've got in my head that then doesn't translate to the page. It's as if I can see X actor/musician/athlete/politician (public figure) in the role, and I end up just writing dialogue, knowing how X person acts, talks, dresses, their public personae and/or what they're known for in film/albums/sports/politics (etc.).

But I read somewhere that this is not a good idea, that 1) the readers should have their own image, based on either a little more original description or something generic enough that they can fill in their own details; 2) X public figure may not be as well known in 20 or 30 years, and the image would get lost in translation (and the story somewhat dated as a result); and 3) this might open the door for a lawsuit, even if you're not saying anything bad, but you're using X public figure's "likeness" without his/her permission, one of the very same reasons you can't Google-Images a picture of Sheen or Clooney and put it up for free on a blog or website.

My thoughts on this are: For 1) the fact that James Dean and Charlie Sheen tend to evoke the same kind of understanding of a rebel bad-boy archetype, there are certain universally understood images that don't need much further explanation. For 2) the answer to #1 applies, this time about the same universally understood images carrying through time. (In 50 years there'll be another James or Charlie.) About 3) I'm not so sure, although I believe this has been done before. You're setting up an expectation that the reader already has about X person, i.e. the charming, handsome doctor is Clooney or Dempsey, rather than the troubled bad boy Dean or Sheen, and vice versa. When people picture Julia Roberts they don't think shocking or exotic, like Madonna; nor do they have an image of the Girl Next Door when thinking of the Material Girl. And so on. Unlike a blog or website where there's a picture of the actual person being used, something like this, I would consider to be a description of a character who is like that person or exhibits similar traits or has a similar profession/personality/evokes a similar image of said person's public or "fictional" persona. (Clooney isn't a doctor, but he played one on TV.)

What are your thoughts? As I wrote in the other thread, I tend to gravitate towards the more escapist, light-hearted YA stuff (like Meg Cabot and Anne Brasheares rather than Suzanne Collins or even Stephanie Meyer), a lot of which is considered "chick lit" and both, too, being escapist "popcorn literature" tend to be more visual and make use of elements of the pop-culture spectrum, like the escapism found in movies and TV. Can someone maybe point out some examples of other books where something like this is in play, i.e. the writer had a specific actor/politician/athlete/other public figure in mind when crafting his/her character(s), and/or examples of the "name-dropping" style of description I wrote about above? On the Road maybe not a good example, since Kerouac was already friends with Ginsberg and Cassady, the inspiration for other characters in the book. The "James Dean" image sure comes about in Twilight, with Edward, and I know Nick Hornby once famously said that when he wrote High Fidelity, "it was like John Cusack was reading my book." (Bruce Springsteen has a cameo in both the film and the book, too.) :)

Anything else, or other comments to offer?

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Mira
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Re: Real-world people as models for characters?

Post by Mira » November 5th, 2011, 4:22 pm

I love to play around with the idea of who might play my character in a movie. I always have a couple of people, because I don't want to write the character specifically FOR someone, but it's fun to think about who might play the role.

But in terms of whether I would say that in a book - it's really hard to know. There are times it might work really well, and times it wouldn't. I've definitely seen it done, and sometimes it works for me as a reader, because it gives me a better visual image and sometimes it doesn't, because it changes the image I already had, or it compares the character to an actor/actress I don't like or find appealing.

The last point might be enough to steer me away from it, but I'm a big proponent of following the writer following their own intuition in decisions like this. If it feels right for you, then I say go for it!

Rachel Ventura
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Re: Real-world people as models for characters?

Post by Rachel Ventura » November 5th, 2011, 9:13 pm

Mira wrote:I love to play around with the idea of who might play my character in a movie. I always have a couple of people, because I don't want to write the character specifically FOR someone, but it's fun to think about who might play the role.

But in terms of whether I would say that in a book - it's really hard to know. There are times it might work really well, and times it wouldn't. I've definitely seen it done, and sometimes it works for me as a reader, because it gives me a better visual image and sometimes it doesn't, because it changes the image I already had, or it compares the character to an actor/actress I don't like or find appealing.

The last point might be enough to steer me away from it, but I'm a big proponent of following the writer following their own intuition in decisions like this. If it feels right for you, then I say go for it!
Always good to know that for some things, there are no absolutes. :) And again, rarely if ever do I say explicitly the name, but just have a general "all-star cast" of people who I think would tend to fit the role/character best. As such, I tend to tailor it in such a way.

Just out of curiosity, how did J.K. Rowling go from practically nowhere to having such fine-grained control over who the cast would be in her film adaptations? I mean, do even other big names, the Kings/Grishams/Pattersons/etc., do/did they get as much input in guiding the casting director?

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CharleeVale
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Re: Real-world people as models for characters?

Post by CharleeVale » November 5th, 2011, 9:53 pm

Rachel Ventura wrote:Just out of curiosity, how did J.K. Rowling go from practically nowhere to having such fine-grained control over who the cast would be in her film adaptations? I mean, do even other big names, the Kings/Grishams/Pattersons/etc., do/did they get as much input in guiding the casting director?
By being extremely, extremely, successful.

Rarely, if ever, are authors consulted about the casting process. J.K. Rowling is one of the major exceptions. Even Stephenie Meyer didn't have direct say in the original casting process.

Though, with the recent trend of accurate book adaptations, authors are being kept more in the loop. Cassandra Clare(The Mortal Instruments, The Infernal Devices), though having no direct say, has been kept in the loop on all the casting decisions, shown the audition tapes, and some of the actor's auditioning even got to speak to her about the characters.

Book people don't get a lot of say in the book-to-movie process because many of the book people frankly don't understand the intricacies of the movie world, and how they are so drastically different. However, I'm glad that with the greater presence of authors in social media, and the growing trend of authors having fans as well as books, the authors are being consulted more.

CV

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Falls Apart
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Re: Real-world people as models for characters?

Post by Falls Apart » November 7th, 2011, 12:00 am

As a general rule, specifically naming a person your character looks like is bad form. There are a couple reasons for this--one, pop culture is transient. If you want your book to last longer than the latest trend, you'll want to find another method. Two, not everyone is familiar with these figures, so your descriptions will do nothing for them. Above all, though, do not make the reader do math about your character--e.g., "She was a fat, Asian, middle-aged, female version of Justin Bieber." Please, for the sake of your readers' sanity. Do. Not. Do. This.

That being said, there's nothing wrong with invoking a particular actor or actress. Describe him/her to your heart's content. I have a whole slideshow with pictures of how I picture my characters and I reference it often. I really wouldn't name them, though, or it makes your readers feel like they're on a movie set. But, hey--if it works, it works.

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