Last night, I watched “A Single Man,” starring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, and Nicholas Hoult. I had no idea what the movie was about, but enjoyed it for what it was. Simple story, really. A man loses his partner of sixteen years, and decides that his life isn’t worth living. Then the people in his life show him otherwise.
Nothing super-dramatic; in fact, incredibly nuanced. I was intrigued by the director and cinematographer’s use of color tones and hues in the movie, as subtle devices to show the mindset of the main character (George). But what truly brought the movie to life was Colin Firth, whose portrayal of George, while understated, was absolutely honest. Firth outdid Firth on understatement in this movie. It was the eyes first. From the moment he receives the call about Jim’s death, when he sits stunned, and his eyes slowly fill with tears, Firth had me hooked. Tears in his eyes, with only spasms of grief twitching across his face, he walks robotically around his house, before running to a friend’s house, where his despair and loss pour out. It was all so carefully underplayed. So honest.
From that point on, it didn’t matter what the storyline was, I believed Firth. And, most importantly, I cared about George.
In writing, as in acting, it is vital to make your characters believable. Once you accomplish that, and adhere to the straight and narrow road of honesty with your characters, your book will succeed. You will pull your reader into your writing and make them care what happens to your characters, good and evil though they may be. Once you’ve defined a character, you must be honest with both that character and the reader. Otherwise, your writing will fail.
You cannot create a character who acts like Gandhi in one scene, and then turns and destroys a town in another. The only way that works (and I think it would make a great character), is if you write it so that others see the character as a Gandhi, but you, as the writer, give the reader the tiniest glimpse of the monster who lurks within. In that way, you have been true to the character and, thus, to the reader. But, thereafter, the reader will know the monster, and the character must abide by that truth. It won’t work if you have the character have a change of heart for a happy ending. Remember in “The Wizard of Oz,” the Wicked Witch of the West dies. There is no miraculous transformation as a result of her interaction with the purity of Dorothy and her friends (especially Toto). No, that could never be. She was evil, and evil she would remain until her death.
So it is with your characters. Once you have defined them, so they must remain. Of course, there is some character transformation that can take place, growth and change through atonement, for example, but the seeds of that growth and change must already lurk beneath the surface, and must have already been infinitesimally visible to the reader. In that way, you stay true to your characters, and honest with the readers.
Before you begin writing, know your characters, inside and out. And look for those little hints, the tiniest suggestions, of possible growth and change. These tidbits can surprise you as a writer, and delight your readers.