Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.37: Casting Your Book, with Gama Martinez

Live from Phoenix Comic Con, Gama Martinez joins us for a discussion of casting your book. This is the process by which you create a cast of characters for your story ahead of creating the story itself, allowing you to stay ahead of your default decisions for who will step into the scene next.

Credits: this episode was recorded live at Phoenix Comic Con by Jeff Cools, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Cast your book! The instructions are here, and you’ll follow them by filling out something that looks like this casting sheet. The sheet is read-only, but you can copy it or print it or whatever you need to do in order to create one of your own.

Thing of the week: Child of the Wilde, by Gama Martinez.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: If you don’t think about casting before writing, you become subject to your unconscious biases, making lazy casting choices and using things that you have already seen or done before. Make a list of the roles you think will be in your book, and where they lie on various axes. Then flip some of the axes and see how that affects your plot. Cast all your people, then switch their roles. See what this does to your story. Who will be in the most pain? Who will experience this in a way that let’s you tell a new story? Once you know what the story will be about, write job interviews with different kinds of characters. Go through magazines and cut out pictures of people. Think about your characters existing on multiple axes!

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 37.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Casting Your Book, with Gama Martinez.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Gama] And I’m Gama. Sorry.
[Laughter. Oh, no]
[Brandon] You were right on that. Our good friend, Gama, who’s been on the podcast before. Tell us a little about yourself.
[Gama] Well, I write middle grade fantasy, generally. I have two series going on right now. One called The Pharim War, and one called The Nylean Chronicles.

[Brandon] Excellent. We are going to talk about casting your book. Mary, you pitched this topic.
[Mary] Yeah. This is something that I have been working with my students, that I really started thinking about after doing the Writing the Other workshop with Nisi Shawl, Cynthia Ward, and Tempest Bradford. It’s very easy… We’ve talked on previous podcasts about examining your unconscious biases and things like that. One of the things that I’ve found is that if I do not think about my casting at the beginning before I start writing, that I will often default to things that I have already seen. That I will make choices… in much the same way that you’ll make lazy choices about magic systems or things like that, I will make lazy casting choices and reach for things that mimic stuff that I have already seen in media.
[Howard] You become subject to your unconscious biases.
[Mary] Exactly.
[Brandon] Even beyond that, you become subject to things you have done before…
[Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] Repeatedly. Will just… Like the more I write, the more… Even with character and plot and things, I have this moment of “Have I done this before?” And I realize I have. I have to rebuild part of this even if it’s something that would be interesting and good. So I think this is a really good thing to talk about.

[Mary] It’s not just what does my character look like? What is their favorite food? But like how old are they? What’s… Are they fully able bodied? Very few people actually are. Although a lot of disabilities… Like you wear glasses. That is a disability that we have normalized. It’s also a great way to look at the world building as well. So this is something that I’m very excited about.
[Gama] One thing I’m noticed is I was looking back at my stuff and I was like, “Everything is governed by a council.”
[Gama] There’s a city council, there’s a high council, everything is governed by a council. So I need to make a conscious decision to get away from casting counselors as the leaders of government.
[Mary] I had a short story that I was recently working on, and I realized that, quite by accident, because I did not cast it beforehand, that I had an all-female cast with one guy. I was like, “Oh, I really need to get more guys in there.” Then I was like, “No. No, actually, that is now going to be a deliberate decision.” That I am going to have the token male in this. Because that’s not something that I see in something… It wasn’t… It was not a book. I mean, it was not a short story that was about feminism or anything like that. It was just… It suddenly offered me opportunities. That’s one thing that I think when you’re looking at casting…

[Mary] I do an exercise now which when we get to the exercise at the end, I’m going to hand to you guys. Where I sit down with a grid and I make a list of kind of the roles that I know are probably going to be in the book. The hero, the boyfriends, the dragon tamer, the whatever. I go through and I will write down… Just like where he is on the gender spectrum, where they are on the class spectrum, all of these things. Then I’ll go through and I’ll flip an axis for each character. I try to look for what is this going to give me, what opportunities will that give me in the plot…
[Brandon] That’s similar to a David Farland suggestion from when I took his workshop years ago, which was cast all your people. Then switch their roles.
[Mary] Yeah.
[Brandon] To say what does this do to my story? And am I just… It keeps you from being lazy. You’re like, “Oh. I’m now putting the 18-year-old woman who was… That was the princess who didn’t have much experience. Now she’s the wise mentor. Why is she the wise mentor? What does she know?” And things like this. That shakeup… You don’t necessarily have to write that book, but that shakeup will make you think about things.
[Dan] it is… That’s, I think, the thing that a lot of people miss when we start talking about this kind of topic, is a lot of people are listening to this episode and thinking, “Oh, they’re just promoting diversity for diversity’s sake.” No, we’re not. They make it so much more interesting. I’m right in the middle right now of outlining my next book. I’m doing a Western. It’s so easy to fall into very classic archetypes with that. I wanted to take a step back and say, “Well, no. Depending on where this Western takes place, there might be a ton of Chinese people. Am I going to have Mexicans?” The location that I’ve chosen actually has a ton of Germans. So suddenly using a German character in that time and place changes so many other things about the story and makes it so much more interesting.
[Gama] I recently dealt with an issue where I had the queen who has offspring did not appear in the book, but I had mentioned that they regretted that she wasn’t here, because she was the military strategist. I realized I, by default, made all the guards and soldiers male. That doesn’t make sense, because the queen is the military strategist. So I had to go back and consciously make that decision to make some of the guards female.
[Mary] The book that I’m working on right now, I’ve got… Again, I had done this casting exercise. I’d looked at it and realized, “Oh, there is a lot of white people in this book.” It’s set on the East Coast of the United States after a meteor strike. There’s a lot of white people, and there’s a lot of men, and there’s a lot of Christians. My main characters are already set in canon, because this is a prequel to a novella. So I was like, “What aspects of these characters have I not defined that I can put on a non-dominant axis?” So I decided to make them Jewish. Suddenly, that opened up all of these different opportunities in the book for conflicts I didn’t have before. It’s not… This is not suddenly a book that is about Judaism. It’s not that at all. If I can give an example from… So I recently watched Suspicion by Alfred Hitchcock which is a fantastic film. This is not a spoiler. But one of the things that happens… When they introduce the female lead. She’s reading and she’s wearing glasses. I think, “Oh, that’s a really interesting thing, because you’ve established how bookish she is, she wears glasses.” But then she also wears them at other points. Like she wears them when she’s walking around. I thought, “Oh, this is going to be a plot point later. It’s totally going to be a thing where there’s some critical thing where she’s trapped someplace and loses her glasses.” That’s not what he did. What happens is that there is a point in the book… In the film. It’s also apparently a book. But there’s a point in the film where she’s reading something that is completely unrelated to the plot. She just got a letter, and she gets up to get her glasses so she can read the letter. While she’s up, she’s able to… She happens to glance in a mirror that shows her something that’s happening behind her that is critical to the plot. So what happened was that that very minor disability put her in a position that shaped the plot, but it was not about that part of her. That’s the kind of thing that we’re talking about when we’re talking about casting. That these opportunities because of the different way that the character will go through and experience life will shape and allow you to do things that you wouldn’t have been able to do before. Because otherwise, it would’ve had to be so mechanisized to get her in position to see that.

[Brandon] There’s a bit of a hobbyhorse I have on this. Related to this. A lot of people who listen to this… It’s like Dan was saying, they’re like, “Oh, you’re just saying diversity for diversity’s sake.” Which actually is pretty legit. That’s a good enough reason. But I want to talk about fantasy as the genre of wonder. I have found that when I talk to people, if they stop reading fantasy. Oftentimes people say, “Oh, I used to…” Or this was back when I was pitching my books to people and I was like, “Do you read fantasy?” And things like this. They would say, “I used to, but after I read it for a while, it stopped doing for me what it used to.” The reason, I think, is because of this idea of a sense of wonder. When you read fantasy, one of the things you want is to explore things that are new, that are fresh, that are interesting, that are different. You want some familiarity as we’ve talked about. If the stories are all the same, that’s actually going to lose the entire genre huge numbers of readers because they will all be to similar, and we will all lose that sense of wonder. So pushing yourself in these directions is going to make not only your books better, because you’ll be a better writer. It will also do good for the entire genre and bring us new readers.
[Howard] I have… I have been telling the same set of stories with the same growing cast of characters for 16 years now. What I’ve found is that when I begin a new story, the casting call is the single most important decision I can make. It is not what is the mission, what is the big dumb object we are going to explore, what is the enemy? It is, and this is harkening back to the thing we learned from Scott Card years and years and years ago, who are the characters who are in the most pain? Which point of view character is going to experience this in a way that will let me tell a new story even though it’s just another mercenary mission in which we hurt people and break things. So the casting call is critically important. It wasn’t until I woke up to this that I ended up with some really, really interesting characters on the page.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Gama, do you have a book you want to pitch to us?
[Gama] Yes. I just released a book called Child of the Wilde, which is the first book in my Nylean Chronicles series. This book came about because I was challenged to write a short story about a purple unicorn that turned into a potato.
[Gama] So I wrote this story, and this unicorn ended up being the unicorn prince. I started thinking, I was like, “You know, there are some aftermaths of turning the unicorn prince into a potato.” So, Child of the Wilde came out of that, and it explores the aftermath of that happening.
[Laughter. Sweet!]
[Brandon] Where can they get a copy of Child of the Wilde?
[Gama] Child of the Wilde is on Amazon in e-book and is on all other retailers in print, so…

[Brandon] Excellent, excellent. Dan, you had something that you wanted to mention?
[Dan] Yeah. What Howard was talking about with kind of casting the various mercenary missions reminded me of a really cool exercise that Dave Farland used to teach us to do, which is that once you figure out what the story’s going to be about, what’s the big dumb object that they’re going to explore, literally sit down and… He recommended and I’ve tried this, write job interviews with different kinds of characters. Say, “Well, okay, here’s the mission. What happens if the chef does it? What happens if this other person does it?” I love these kind of free writing exercises, and they totally change the flavor of the story. You can look at it and say, “Well, this story would be so much more interesting if the chef did it than the Marine.”
[Brandon] I have a… We have a friend, Dan and I, mutual friend who actually casts her books by going and looking through magazines and cutting out pictures. Saying, “All right. This person is this character.”
[Mary] Oh, interesting.
[Brandon] She keeps a folder of all of these, with like a folio about the character and the pictures. Often there will be like three pictures, it’s like a cross between these three people, or something like this, or this is the dress that she’s wearing at this point. She has those photo references which are really handy for her in descriptions and things like this.
[Mary] I handle it differently. I’ve kind of halfway mentioned this, and I think I may have talked about it on a previous podcast. The idea of the axis of superior to… Subordinate to dominant. One of the things that I very seriously look at is trying to make sure that my characters are not at the dominant end of all the spectrums. A lot of times when people are talking, when people are complaining about “Oh, diversity for diversity’s sake,” what they’re not understanding is that everybody exists along multiple axes. That frequently, when you do… And you do see… I mean, there… Diversity for diversity’s sake… There are books where it is actually shoehorned and it is not doing service to anything. When you see that, what’s happening, I believe, is that people are concentrating on one axis, and that character exists only on that single axis. I think that it’s really important when you’re casting that you make sure that your thinking about all of the axes that your character exists on. Because there are places where they have strengths and there are places where they don’t. On the axis of race, I’m white…
[Mary] In the United… I know.
[Mary] I have… Actually, Facebook will occasionally tag my photos and tell… And say Tempest Bradford. I’m like, “No, Tempest and I… Tempest…” For listeners, Tempest is African-American and I am really not.
[Mary] I’m like, “Really, Facebook? This is a little questionable.” But on that end of the axis, that’s where I’m dominant. But I have a neurological disorder which is mild compared to other people. But when you look at that axis, I’m a little further down that spectrum. On the gender spectrum, I’m not a guy. Hi, guys.
[Mary] I am the only woman sitting up here right now. That puts me a little bit further down the spectrum in many situations. But not as far down the spectrum as, in terms of dominant/subordinate, as someone who’s trans, who has a lot more to deal with. So someone who’s trans may have… May be dominant in other areas. So it’s really important when you’re casting to make sure that you think about all of this, that the entire… Entirety.
[Howard] That’s how you avoid the token something or other.
[Mary] Yes.

[Brandon] We are out of time. I want to thank our audience at Phoenix ComicCon.
[Brandon] Long-suffering audience, who at this point has done a lot of episodes with us. Mary, you have some… homework?
[Mary] I have homework. So in the liner notes, we’re going to be giving you a link to a casting sheet. This is a grid that I said that I used. What I want you to do is I want you to go through… It’ll come with instructions, I promise. I want you to go through and I want you to cast the next thing that you’re working on or the thing that you have previously… That you already have in progress. Go through and fill it out. Look at the axes that your character exists on. Then flip it so that you make sure that your character has at least two axes in which they are not dominant. Then flip them so that they have two different things that they are not dominant in. When you look at this sheet, I’m also going to say that if you’re doing secondary world fantasy, that this is a really good spot to start thinking about how your culture handles prejudice and which gender is dominant, and if it is in fact a binary culture, that you want to make sure… Feel free to tweak that worksheet. But this is the place that you need to start thinking about that, is before you start writing. So, that’ll be… That’s your homework. I want you to do that.
[Brandon] Gama, thank you so much for coming in and podcasting with us.
[Gama] Thank you for having me.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.