On “casting” while you write. Or not.

by Laura Anne Gilman

When I first started out in this biz, I heard a lot of writers talking about “casting” their books, and researching for visuals (typically actors, but not always) as part of their research prep.

And this struck me as strange (then again, I don’t create playlists for projects, either.  So I may be an outlier.)

Y’see, I don’t ‘cast’ my books before/while I’m writing them – or even after, honestly*.  It’s not because it wouldn’t be fun, or because I don’t think about what my characters look like… it’s just that I have to wait until they tell me what they look like.

Most of my characters ‘appear’ first as voices – their dialogue is the first introduction I get to them, and  only after I’ve been listening to them for a few pages do I  get an idea of what they look like, beyond nationality and gender.  Hell, sometimes I don’t even know their nationality until they’ve been nattering for a while.

So yeah, even after the fact, I’m hard-pressed to say “oh, so-and-so would be perfect to play X” because X is – in my mind – their own distinct person.

(I steal individual traits like a magpie, though, as many random strangers and close friends can attest.)

The current project, however, seems to want to do everything differently. This project wants visuals, even of places where I’ve been or things I know well enough to have in my head already.  And Story really wants to know what the characters look like, before we start writing them. I’m not sure why, but hey, what Story wants, generally, Story gets.

(this is generally a good rule of thumb, except when it’s not.  But that’s another post entirely)

So I’ve been going through my various fandoms, watching old movies with a different eye, and generally trawling the Internet for faces.  And in the process of finding I’ve discovered something interesting about myself: I am acutely uncomfortable browsing the internet looking specifically for a physical type, and even more uncomfortable narrowing down through an actor/actress/model’s portfolio for the very specific shot I need. It feels… stalkerish. Invasive. A little creepy.

Clearly, I would never have made it as a casting director.

Or maybe I would, because one  suggestion was rejected because the actor in question couldn’t IMO handle the role.  Physically ideal, but…no.

I suspect that if writers were able to make casting decisions, we’d see fewer “pretty” faces on the screen, and a lot more interesting ones…

Writers, what say ye?  Readers, do you “cast” while you read?  Do you ever find yourself disagreeing with the author’s description in your head?

(and, if you’ve read the Retrievers series, did the idea of a heroine whom nobody could remember long enough to describe drive you batshit?  Because it reportedly drove my copyeditors. Up. The. Wall.  *heee*)


* there are three exceptions to this.  1) Sergei was always written with Mitch Pileggi in mind.  2) Danny Hendrickson is – and this was pointed out after the fact – based on Tim Hutton. 3) I may have given some serious through as to who would do the voice for Madame, should H’wood ever come knocking….



crossposted to Writer. Editor. Tired Person.


About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at https://www.patreon.com/LAGilman Learn more at www.lauraannegilman.net, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.


On “casting” while you write. Or not. — 10 Comments

  1. I did a little dreamcasting for a TV series concept I was working on, mostly to help clarify in my own head the personalities I wanted for two characters who I thought it would be easy to slip into stereotype otherwise. “Casting” them against type helped with that. (We shot the pilot on a shoestring, so actually getting Mandy Potankin for “his” role was never on the table, and we never got past the pilot, so we never got to the role I wanted Robin Sachs for, in season 2.)

    But other than scripts that would have to be cast for reals eventually, I never cast my writing in my head. Mostly because I don’t know enough actors to do it well, and I am not a visual enough thinker to need it.

    I also don’t cast in my head while I’m reading, but I do enjoy playing the casting game with other readers for who would be good if books I love ( usually character-driven series) were turned into movies/TV. However, I am not good at it. Still don’t know enough actors, and also I find I need a time machine. I want this actor as they were in that film from 1983…

  2. I find I need a time machine. I want this actor as they were in that film from 1983…

    Or, worse yet, that actor as they were in a film from 1935….

  3. I tend to cast books after I’ve written the first draft. This helps with the rewrite, when I’m going through tipping in bits of description and setting, so that a character can stay consistently blond and tall, or whatever, through the whole ms. The nice thing about IMDB and other interweb pictures is that you can time travel. Mandy Patinkin in his HOMELAND maturity not quite right to buckle your swashes? Slide back a quarter century and see if his Inigo Montoya look doesn’t do better for your hero.
    When I wrote HOE LIKE A GOD, I didn’t even look at my hero for a good couple hundred pages. Finally some other characters did it for me, and I realized he was tall and hunky. So I had the teen daughter say so, and you can see (by how far it is in the book) how slow I am about this kind of thing!

  4. I don’t cast as I write. They are who they are. And I often have trouble with the “cast the movie” thing (although of course, all characters everywhere should be played by Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, because) because they are who they are, and I have a hard time dislodging my vision from that. When I do play the casting game, I often have to go back in time to the 40s and 50s to find the faces I want. Or the energy or aura I need.

    I’m glad to know I’m not the only one. What powers one through writing is so personal; for me it starts with voice and goes from there. Looks generally come way later on.

  5. I think this does vary widely. I know of people who watch TV, shopping for the right character for the WIP. Others would never think of such a thing. (Susan Shwartz takes her characters to Saks, to decide which shoes they would buy…)

  6. When I interviewed Octavia Butler years ago, she told me that she heard her characters, too, and that their physical descriptions didn’t come to her until much later. So you’re in good company, Laure Anne!

    Sometimes I cast and sometimes I don’t, though even when I do, it’s never until the book is finished and turned in to my editor.