Lee Daniels’ film “The Butler” tells the story of Cecil Gaines, an African-American man who served as butler for eight Presidents. The casting was masterful, but the casting director didn’t attempt to find actors with a strong physical resemblance to the Presidents. Instead the actors understood the character traits of the Presidents, so they portrayed the personality of each Chief Executive with striking authenticity.

For example, John Cusack doesn’t resemble Richard Nixon, nor does Robin Williams look much like Dwight Eisenhower, and the film’s make-up artists did little to alter their appearance. However, the actors knew how to demonstrate the character qualities of those Presidents (e.g., Eisenhower’s soft-spoken reserve and Nixon’s heavy-handed attempts at manipulation). The result was most convincing.

A novelist needs to master that same art, especially when writing historical fiction. It’s not necessary to take inventory of every facial feature or wardrobe accessory to summon a famous personality for the reader’s imagination. But if we can convey the essence of a character with a telling phrase or a meaningful gesture, the reader’s memory will fill in the details.