Thursday, June 23, 2005

He Looks Like That Famous Guy...You Know, Him

When I start something new, one of the first things I do is form a mental image of my characters. Is he or she dark haired or fair, blue eyes or brown, lean and athletic or built like a brick wall? To further solidify the image of my characters in my mind, I try to imagine which actor he or she most closely resembles, then I go hunt down some reference images to keep close at hand. This really helps when I need to write a description.

Yesterday, I was using this image of Jason Behr

I described the dark, silky hair that fell long enough to brush his collar and flop down over his forehead and across one eye, the nearly-black eyes hooded under thick eyebrows, and the killer thousand watt smile. I ignored the five o'clock stubble because my character is clean shaven. I took it one step further, though, and made a comparison of his looks in terms of real, living actors by naming names.

But since Jason Behr is a fairly unknown actor except for fans of Roswell (I've never even seen this guy act, he just perfectly fit the image I had in my mind of this particular character), when it came to saying who exactly it was my character resembled, I didn't want to use the name Jason Behr since it would probably draw forth a blank in the mind of any future readers, again, unless they were Roswell fans. Sorry, Jason.

Instead, I decided in this image, Jason looks like a cross between Tom Cruise and Colin Farrell, two actors whom I'm 99% sure that most people have heard of and at least have an idea of what they look like. Tom's the boy-next-door type with the mega-watt grin and Colin Farrell is the bad-boy who your mother warned you to stay away from since he only wants one thing.

But later it occurred to me that maybe using the names of specific celebrities to help the reader form a mental image is not such a great idea.

First of all, celebrities root a story in a particular time and assume a common point of reference amongst readers. I know Errol Flynn was supposed to have been one of the first ever movie superstars, but saying that someone looks like Errol Flynn gives me nothing more than he must be handsome in a generic movie star kind of way. Likewise, Cary Grant was suave and sophisticated but unless I go hunt down his picture, I don't have an immediate image that comes to mind. Clark Gable is a bit easier, and if someone is described as looking like Paul Newman with those piercing blue eyes or like Robert Redford, I can pretty much get on board. Then again, I'm also old enough that I can remember seeing and loving movies like The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Out of Africa. I have a point of reference.

Someday Tom Cruise and Colin Farrell will be the Clark Gables of the younger set. Not that I expect my works to be so great that they will last generations and my great great-granddaughter will shake her head wondering who the heck Colin Firth is and why her great great-grandmama thought he was all that. Just that name dropping means you've latched on to something specific but not permanent.

Another problem with using real people as appearance markers is that what looks good is highly subjective. I think James Marsters is drop dead gorgeous, but I know quite a few who prefer David Boreanaz. I don't even find Colin Farrell to be all that great looking despite the fact that so many rave about him, and it took me a good long while to find the appeal in Jude Law (but once I did, there's no going back). So when I describe my hero as a cross between Brad Pitt and The Rock, I might be alienating all those readers who think Brad is a pretty boy and The Rock is just a guy with very little neck. Who knows.

Even so, there's something to be said about specificity. I like when a writer tells me the hero bears a passing resemblance to George Clooney or Ben Affleck. When I read something like that, I come up with a very exact idea of what the hero looks like, and for the rest of the story I'm imagining that particular guy. Sure beats what I get if I use the picture of the model on the front cover, assuming the model has even a few traits similar to those of the hero as he's described.

Even if the story itself includes no direct comparison, it's kind of cool when I read an interview by an author who admits she had in her mind a particular actor when she was envisioning a character. Sometimes if I learn this after having read the book - for example, finding out Suzanne Brockmann had imagined hero Admiral Jake Robinson of The Admiral's Bride as being an older Mel Gibson - it doesn't necessarily jive with the image I had created as I was reading. In which case, I just ignore the new bit of info in favor of my own, original image. In my mind, Admiral Jake is taller than Mel and less friendly looking. More of an Ed Harris with hair.

I think this all has to do with my propensity for mental casting. When I read a book I love, I can't help but imagine (hope) that someday it will be turned into a movie. And allowing myself the fantasy of playing casting director, it's a blast to select which megastars I want to watch on the big screen acting out the romance I've just enjoyed. I do this with my own stories as I write them with the hopes that when my wildest crazy dreams come true and they've decided to turn all of my titles into blockbuster movies, I'll get approval of the actors. Hey, it's my blog, my fantasy.

So I haven't decided if I'll go back and remove my references to specific actors in my latest WIP. I suppose armed with the picture, I could do a fair enough job of just giving a description of the hero.

I just don't want to end up with another faceless, dark-haired, dark-eyed guy with a graceful athletic build and a thousand-watt smile that can melt steel. I just know I've met *that* guy somewhere before.


Anonymous said...

I'd never thought about it before, Lynn, but you're right in your suspicion: it could be dangerous to liken your characters to real actors/famous people, for exactly the reason you say. If a reader doesn't like that actor/thinks he's not good-looking at all/has heard something about him she doesn't like, then you've switched off a reader.

I took a look at all of the photos you linked to. I'd say I'm a Boreanaz and not a Marsters appreciator. ;) (I'd never seen either of them before; I must not watch whatever they're in). About half of the photos really didn't do it for me AT ALL; about half of the others I can take or leave; and that leaves me with a handful where I'd say, yes, he's attractive.

And now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure that I can remember at least one contemporary novel where I was told that the hero resembled some famous guy. And it was a guy I really didn't like at all - not sure whether it was that I didn't consider him attractive or whether I hated things I'd seen him in - and it did cause me to lose some interest in the hero. Suddenly he wasn't this hunky, attractive guy any more.

As well as a couple of the guys you've chosen (and doesn't Brad Pitt look AWFUL in that photo?), there's guys like Nicholas Cage and Kevin Costner, about whom I think, any time I see or hear about them, 'chinless wonder'. Not the right sort of image you want for a romantic hero!

On balance, I think I'd advise against using real people as a comparison point...

MaryF said...

I always use a picture of an actor and actress for my characters, and describe them that way. I never say, "He looks like Gerard Butler and she looks like Mira Sorvino." It's better to let the reader come up with her own picture. For example, an author recently posted that she based her hero on Chris Noth, you know, Mr. Big. I love Mr. Big. But when I read her book, I pictured someone else. Another author said she based her hero on Colin Farrell. I do not like Colin Farrell - at least, I didn't till I read the book. I fell so hard for that hero that I rented a bunch of Colin Farrell movies!

Lynn M said...

Anon - James Marsters and David Boreanaz both appeared in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and were both at one time Buffy's lovers. There's a huge split in the Buffy fandom over those who prefer James's character, Spike, and David's character, Angel, and since Spike is a bleach blond Billy Idol look-alike and Angel is dark and brooding, they provide a great contrast.

I so much agree with you about the images in the links I provided - that they really don't do the actors justice (especially the Brad Pitt image - Yuck!). IMDB offers good filmography stats but they need to take another look at the head shots they use on the actors' main pages.

Mary - I've yet to find the appeal of Colin Farrell. Granted, I've never watched a movie of his. I suppose, like you, if I read a book in which he was the hero and I loved the book, I'd hunt down his movies.

I've done that with actors where I've seen one movie that I've liked. Vin Diesel is my prime example - saw him in The Pacifier and went and rented a whole bunch of other movies he's in. And now I have him as the model for a hero character in one of my WIPs.

Anonymous said...

Our society immortalizes actors. Now they have even taken over from the storylines of People magazine and have invaded the front section of "respectable" newspapers and the top stories on CNN. While they should be nothing more than the character they portray in the movie we watch, they are instead a function of their sham marriage and idiotic social activites. As soon as you put that description out there you get all the rest of their baggage.

You the writer must create the character, his looks, his motions, his set of ethics, etc. in the mind of the reader. Then just like a painting has different meanings to different people, your character can have different interpretations by different readers. ...Plus, when you go to make the film, you don't get squeezed for more $ by the actor who has a momopoly on the role.