Thursday, November 29, 2007

10 Reasons to Love Hugh Laurie (Ok, maybe just 3)

Maven Lacey KayeIn the comments on Tuesday's post I promised to tell you about the super-awesome POV invidualizer tool I use to give each of my characters their own particular voice. Some of you expressed disappointment you would be made to wait until later in the week to find out exactly what my process is. Well, since it's Thursday and I'm the Thursday Maven, wait no more! My super-awesome semi-secret POV individualizer tool is...

My tv.

Wait! Wait! Come back! It IS a good tool!

On tv and in film, actors make characters, right? We know characters come from screenwriters. But screenwriters can't make characters without actors. Ergo, screenwriters need actors. (And vice versa)

As writers of books, though, we don't get actors to make our characters come alive. I propose that our characters be actors. Problem solved!

But wait--how do we do that? In my career as an industrial engineer, I've learned working backward is usually the easiest way to figure a process out. As someone who is both lazy and a huge proponent of standard work, I have come up with a theory for turning characters into actors--starting with looking at actors who create great characters.

Many of us use photos of actors or models to help our muse along and to keep details of facial features and height, etc, consistent. I think it's not a big leap to use actors to help us hear characters. When an actor is in character, he's not who he is in real life. But there are elements of his own style (or hers) that creep in to make us love that character's actor. (Consider this your author voice.)

You're following, right?

So what makes the difference between the actor and the character? Think about this: some actors can't play characters. They can only play themselves. We know which ones they are: actors who consistently behave the same way in every movie, regardless of their role. Ok, now that you know who they are, forget about them. You don't want to use one of them to help your muse. What you want is to think of someone who really, really makes the character for each role he or she plays. Come up with someone really talented and then -- write this down -- steal them.


What Would They Do?

See the difference between copying a character and copying an actor? We writers are all actors, in a way. We take plain words and make them into riveting, emotional stories. How do we do that? A lot of the time, it's through making really captivating characters and then hurting them really, really badly. But a character with no reaction isn't a fun character to watch hurt. Likewise, someone who makes you smile *must have something about them that makes you smile* while they're making you smile. It's all in the delivery, baby.

When I sit down to write a scene, I get into character first. I usually go back and read a few pages of their last scene (even if it's 30 pages earlier) before I start writing. This reminds me of their voice. Then, while I'm writing in their voice, I'm constantly acting out the scene as I picture that actor in my head behaving. Not looking, but behaving. That's because I am the character looking out. Knowing what the character looks like isn't helpful to me. Knowing how that character behaves and using it to communicate the world around him is the key to finding that specific character's voice.

In short, I am a really big fan of my characters interacting with their setting, and anyone who's ever had a crit from me can probably tell that. If you're locked in your character's head and they're not acting then you're either getting internal narrative or dialogue. Think about Hugh Laurie's character Greg House. Do we ever get internal narrative from him? No. But do we need it to feel like we truly know and connect with him? No. Why?

Cues & Things Hugh Laurie uses to communicate Greg House to me:

  • A glass whiteboard

  • A ball

  • A cane

  • His sneakers

  • His motorcycle

  • His printed tshirts

  • His PSP

  • Vicodin

  • Coffee

  • The individual relationships he has with each of his coworkers -- no two are the same; he never behaves the same way with any two people (because he has individual opinions of each of those people, even though he very rarely ever says so (positive or negative))

  • The way he stands

    It's impossible for me to imagine anyone but Hugh Laurie playing House because Hugh Laurie has taken what began as words on a page and made them into a real person. Have you ever gone to and listened to him interview? Hugh Laurie is NOTHING like House. Similarly, you'd almost never recognize Hugh Laurie's characters in Black Adder unless you knew to look. Many fans may not know he had any role in Sense and Sensibility--because you weren't watching Hugh Laurie; you were watching Mr. Palmer. He is a fabulous actor and yes, he is my muse.


    How do you do it?


B.E. Sanderson said...

First off, I never knew you were an industrial engineer. I know this sounds weird, but I think that's too cool. (Yes, folks, I may be the world's first engineering groupie.)

Second, I love Hugh Laurie. I loved him in the live version of 101 Dalmations, and I love him as House. If you ever get a chance watch the interview he did on Inside the Actors' Studio. Awesome stuff.

Now, how I do it. For all the players in my stories, I make them out of spare parts - a little like Frankenstein, but with more attractive results. I use bits of people I know or have met, pieces of myself, and actors, and fictional people, and politicians. I throw it all into a big cauldron, stir it up, and Voila! Out pops a fiery vulcanologist, or a shy nobody who has to save the world, or a depressed reporter and her hero, the frustrated astrophysicist.

Carrie Ryan said...

I love Hugh Laurie too! I'm a HUGE fan of Black Adder and didn't even realize that it was the same character as House. I was never a big fan of House until I realized it was Hugh and now I love the show!

Anonymous said...

I don't think I've ever seen anything Hugh Laurie has acted in. Clearly, I am missing out!!

As to the question, I have no idea. I do it well and subconsciously for secondary characters, and sometimes not at all for primary POV characters... Which maybe means, I'm relying too much on internal monologue (which, as you point out, is conspicuously absent from House) for my protags instead of dialogue and action tags (ie House) like I do with my secondary characters. So maybe it's not that I do a craptastic job giving my protags individuality, maybe it's that I simply don't bother to do it at all. And since I can't show what's inside my secondary chars' heads, I'm forced to characterize them by how they interact with their surroundings and each other. And since I apparently make *them* pop with little to no effort, maybe I need to analyze myself and figure out wtf I'm doing, and then apply it to my own damn h/h. Hmmm.

/throws self on pompom

Bill Clark said...

In my career as an industrial engineer, I've learned working backward is usually the easiest way to figure a process out.

Yes! Gotta know where you're going in order to get there. Otherwise you just meander all over the map.

*Having banished the TV (but not the DVD player) from the house, Bill wonders if Lacey has alternate tools to suggest*

lacey kaye said...

I mentioned on your blog, B.E., that I think it's way fun to cobble different traits and mannerisms and fears together to make your character. Giving your character those properties gives them--say, an acting repertoire to pull from.

Carrie, that's actually EXACTLY how I got started watching House. I remember when they did the series premiere I went *shrug*. Another medical drama, no thanks. But I was on Squawk one day and the commentors brought up Hugh Laurie as one of the hottest guys around, and I was like HUH!? Wait a minute! I immediately emailed my then-boyfriend to set the DVR to record the next episode of House, and tada! A huge fan was born.

I know who, wow!!!!!!!!! Craziness! I see it! That's exactly what I didn't know I meant! I'm so excited now. Who knew?

Bill, I'm afraid I'm a one-trick pony. Why don't you rent the seasons on DVD? When I first found House (see above), I was lucky because they were showing reruns of Season 2 in order (but skipping non-essential episodes to the continuing plot). After we finished those up, we got Season 1 and watched it over the summer. Watching tv shows sans commercials--brilliant. Getting all the interviews and producer comments-- fab!

Nothing like learning what they think tiers up to make a great show to help you create your own motion pictures in the readers' heads.

Jackie Barbosa said...

As you know, I adore House at least as much as you do (I have watched EVERY episode, either on TV or on my iPod), but like a lot of others, I didn't realize House was Hugh Laurie until you pointed it out to me. And since I've loved Hugh Laurie for years, I had to start watching the show as soon as I found out.

For those who don't know Laurie's other work, there is a long, LONG list. Aside from Black Adder (he is the funniest Prinny EVAH!), there's also A Bit of Frye and Laurie and Jeeves and Wooster, not to mention a whole host of appearances/voice performances in movies and TV. He was also a writer for Saturday Night Live in 1986.

But enough waxing eloquent on Laurie. Awesome as he is, Lacey's point is well taken. It's the mannerisms and delivery that make House House. Getting that across in words is hard, but it's essential to making the characters "work."

Oddly enough, I'm planning to post something in a similar vein tomorrow, but about the movie, Enchanted, which I saw over the long weekend. But you'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out what I have to say about it!

Anonymous said...

Jacqueline beat me to the punch about Laurie's other roles. He really is a versatile actor. Can you imagine him as Stuart Little's dad? Polar difference from House.

Great point about not all actors being able to play characters. I was channel surfing earlier this morning and one show was making the exact same comment/compliment about Russell Crowe. He, like a younger Robert DiNero transforms himself into each role.

I think you have a great tool here. Use the actor rather than the just the face to get to your character's POV. Brilliant!

I think I'll tack up a picture of Daniel Day Lewis and give it a whirl.


Jackie Barbosa said...

OMG, Santa! All I can say is Daniel Day Lewis in My Beautiful Laundrette. Growl. HAWT!

Darcy Burke said...

Brilliant, brilliant post. And as a former actor, kind of duh, why didn't I figure that out?

I think I'm actually doing this already with my current WIP. Although, I was thinking of an actor in a specific part for certain aspects of my hero (Matt Damon in the Bourne movies if you care). Now that I think about it, Matt is such a great actor (and not bad to look at, ahem) and I can totally use his actor-ness for all of my hero. I've been looking for the way to make him pop as much as my heroine does. This might be it!


/runs off to give it a try

Linda C. McCabe said...


I would also recommend that writers try their hand at acting if they haven't done so before.

Inhabiting the skin of someone other than yourself for a month or so is illuminating. You are also likely to live in a different family dynamic which might be very exciting. Especially if it is incredibly dysfunctional.

One of my favorite reference books that I use to inspire my writing is one that was not written with writers in mind. Nope, it was written for actors. I think of it as reverse engineering. To understand how actors look at a script and bring out their characterizations means that playwrights need to make sure that there is a fertile text to work with. Along that same line is a reader who imagines characters playing parts in their head as they read a story.

I recommend Michael Shurtleff's Audition: Everything an Actor Needs to Know to Get the Part.

Here's a post I wrote a year ago about that book that I've bought at least ten times over.

Oh and break a leg!


bob said...

Wow what a great post. You ladies really break it down here.

I always envisioned Kirsty Alley after I was trying to put a face on my main character as someone bawdy and at times emotional. Once she popped into my head, her mannerisms on tv set in motion ways to get my character to be more alive.

Hellie Sinclair said...

I am so sorry I missed this yesterday! *LOL* This is so true...and I use my TV too. *LOL* Great blog!

Hellie Sinclair said...

P.S. I did know him in S&S AND Blackadder...he does stand out for me, but he IS very much that character. He fits Mr Palmer (kinda like House)--very DROLL and acerbic.

His pieces on Blackadder though defy description. *LOL* Outrageous!

Anonymous said...

Linda, I didn't get over here yesterday in time to tell you I will so totally be checking out that book! Thanks for the recommendation. What is currently just a "feeling" I work with could probably benefit from professional analysis. Heh.

Tammie, welcome! We strive to please.

Santa, what up, female? Glad to have you back!

Ms. Hellion, I agree 100%. I met HL in Black Adder and he stuck with me all the way into my first manuscript (and more!).


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