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Actors vs. Writers: Who’s Right When It Comes to Character?

I don’t agree with this.

Granted I’ve never worked with actors or adaptations of my book. I could be talking out of my ass. But movies, unlike books, are collaborative creations. Everyone’s got to share the same vision or it won’t work. When it comes together, you get Star Wars. When you don’t, you get Dune (the David Lynch one).

Art works best when a single person is driving the vision, the idea. That’s why bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, etc. persist. Even though the art they make needs all of them together, one single person writes the music and lyrics (usually). It’s also why there are more solo artists than ever these days.

But when it comes to movies, it all starts with the writer. The writer knows all the characters. The actor knows only one.

History has proven over and over again that when non-creatives start monkeying with a story, it always ends in disaster. Madame Web, World War Z, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Dragonball Evolution, Alien 3, Justice League, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. They do this even as the movie is being made, like a cartoon character laying down railroad track from the front of the train. “But the chart says…” “But the focus group’s response was…” “Our surveys indicate…” “Demographics want…” Nope, nope, nope. This is just like Neil Gaiman’s quote: “When people tell you something’s wrong or something doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” The writer knows. Trust the writer.

I don’t know how actors work. Some just wing it. Some write in-depth studies of their character, like resumes and papers. Some never break character. Some are just really good at sinking into a role. Some are method actors like Daniel-Day Lewis. Some are method actors like Jared Leto (i.e. assholes). There’s a level of creativity in acting, certainly. I’d be the last to deny it. But the problem is the actor knows one aspect of the story. The writer knows the story as a cohesive whole. And part of that whole is all the characters within.

A good writer is schizophrenic. Part of their job is to know who every character is, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it–at all times. It’s like setting up miniatures for a tactics game. This platoon over here has daddy issues. This one over here needs to learn how to open up. This one over here longs for adventure. And when they clash, the sparks fly. That is what the writer is supposed to do–be a puppeteer for a killer show. And that means knowing all the parts.

If I were a screenwriter or adapting something of mine, I would not appreciate it if the actor suddenly told me he thinks Main Character X wouldn’t do Y for some reason. It’s not the actor’s job to presume motivations. It’s the actor’s job to add plausibility to the character’s actions. It’s the same as how adding sound to a scene adds plausibility. Visual tells you what happened, but sound convinces you that it happened.

Now there are bad writers out there that need this kind of gap-filling. Usually they translate to bad movies, with some exceptions like Avatar, The Cell, or the Star Wars prequels (i.e. throw enough money at it and it will work). If Sebastian Stan thinks there’s a lack of closure for Bucky, that’s a critique of the story, not of the character. The writer neglected to move that platoon in the proper place. In the case of Mark Hamill, who thinks Luke Skywalker wouldn’t quit the rebellion after a single failure and become a hermit, I disagree. Without being given any motivation at all, I could totally see him becoming disillusioned with the Jedi. And I would hate for him to tell me “Luke Skywalker wouldn’t do this.” Well, I think he would because I know his motivations–I wrote the script.

The writer may not know what the main character likes for breakfast and the actor might. But that doesn’t matter to the story. Like in real life, everyone thinks they’re the main character. But in a story, not everyone is. Only the writer knows. His/her job is not to know the in-depth biography of every character, but to give them motivation to take meaningful action, which becomes a plot, which becomes a story.

So what should happen when there are conflicts between the writer and the actor? I don’t know, but honestly, I favor the writer and that’s not bias (OK, it could be) because he/she knows what the character’s role is in relation to the story, how the character serves the story, why that character exists AND exists in the way that he/she does. The actor only knows his/her little bit. They may know it in-depth. They might know things the writer doesn’t or didn’t think of. But the actor is only a puzzle piece. Acting is for little tweaks of the character. Tics and personality. It is a leaf that doesn’t know it’s part of a tree. The writer is the gardener.

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at http://www.ericjuneaubooks.com where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

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