One of the things that I teach my English composition class is that someone wrote pretty much everything in the media, including all movies, advertisements, and newscasts. That’s why great writing is so important. This is certainly true for movies. Although the medium is moving pictures, we can still learn so many lessons about plot, audience, character development, and more by watching truly great and sometimes really horrible films.
For instance, let’s examine The Hateful Eight by Quentin Tarantino. It is an amazing story to see once but, like many of his films, you have to enter the theater with an iron stomach and a numbing reaction to vulgarity and racial slurs, however historically accurate. I’m not saying I’m a Tarantino fan, although I’ve seen most of his movies. True fandom for me is whether I buy the Blu-ray or not, and I don’t own any of his collection. I appreciate the man’s artistry in cinematography but am often put off by the gore and profane (in multiple ways) nature of his films.
The Hateful Eight was just what the title implies. Eight people huddle together in a cabin in the middle of a snowstorm. Several of them had post-Civil War axes to grind, usually in the other fellow’s head, and some simply wanted to kill people. The actors, especially Samuel Jackson, were fabulously horrible and the plot proved as entertaining as gladiatorial combat. You knew someone was going to die. You were just placing your bets on who.
What I took away from the film was a realization that the characters were embodied emotions, cunningly pitted against each other. Jackson’s Major Warren was contained rage, Russell’s bounty hunter embodied paranoia, Leigh, the prisoner-spite, Parks’ O.B.-loyalty, and so on. Even the bit part of the female stagecoach driver, Six-Horse Judy, was pure bouncy happiness. The writer took a large dose of negative emotions, sprinkled a few positive ones in and stirred it long enough for the explosive conclusion. Artful.
So imagine the characters in your work. Is there one emotion that you can ascribe to them? Of course, literary characters are never just one passion. They should be complex and changing, giving us a rainbow of reactions. Yet, what if you could place one dominant feeling or even philosophy on your character, what would it be?
Is it the emotion you want them to have? If not, then you probably need to back up a bit in the story and examine their motivation. What drives your character into action? Is it powerful enough? Remember that the people in great stories are not nice, normal, everyday folks. They are larger than life with greater problems and deeper emotional relationships. For that, you have to dig deeper inside yourself and be prepared to push boundaries, both yours and your character’s
As ever, happy writing!