Sunday, July 15, 2007

Writing Lessons from... Helena Bonham Carter?!

The Tiny Dynamo and I saw the new Harry Potter movie last week. I wasn't completely happy with the adaptation, and I wasn't completely disappointed, either.

But I was definitely struck by Helena Bonham's turn as Bellatrix. In her own words, she 'had five lines, and they cut three out.' Yet she was still one of the movie's most memorable players.

Her performance was no surprise. Every part she takes, no matter how small, she brings it to life. How does she do it?

No big secret. Actors talk about it. Writers talk about it. The big difference is, she actually does it: Miss Carter looks at ever part as though that character were the star of the show.

For that matter, Jk Rowling writes that same way. Her characters are so vivid, so memorable, because each one is an individual in his or her own right. From Cho Chang and Neville to Snape and Filtch, everyone in her books is the star of their own private lives.

After all, it's not like any of us go through our own lives thinking, "I'm the girlfriend/the sidekick/the gruff bartender with words of wisdom/the whore with a heart of gold/etc." Neither should our characters.

Sometimes, Miss Carter's method puts her in conflict with other members of the production. Sometimes, getting in your characters' heads will put them in conflict with the plot outline, with how you saw their function, with how you saw the story going in the first place. A well-realized 'minor' character can turn a story on its ear, and I think that's a good thing.

My current work is a thriller of the stranger-comes-to-town variety. The hero is clear. The two groups of bad guys (each with their own seperate agendas) seem clear at the moment. The femme fatale, she's right there. Or is she? I have to admit, she keeps surprising me, and may even end up being the protaganist at the rate she's going.

My hero is a drifter, tending bar when 'trouble strikes'. he's got a couple of co-workers. Why? Because dialogue reads better than exposition. Because it gives him an opportunity to have local contacts. Because he's, well, a drifter. Sometimes, the guy needs a ride to wherever he's going.

Except that one of the workers has a crush on him. Fair enough. She's motivated to give him local info and rides, anyway. And it creates an instant conflict with the femme fatale. She was meant to be a minor character, but she's gradually becoming more important to the story.

Fair enough.

Thing is, I needed a third bartender. After all, somebody has to keep the place open when the hero and the other tender are out running around. Enter Kevin.

Kevin may not survive to the final draft. There's every chance he'll end up a brief mention along the lines of, 'Ten minutes later, the relief bartender showed up so the hero could leave.' Just another of those lives that brush ours only slightly.

Except Kevin wrote himself a bigger part when the hero needed to use the phone. The more scenes where he shows up (or needs to be considered, even though he's off stage), the more I realize he doesn't like my hero much. Personally, I think at the bottom of it is that Kevin had his eye on their coworker. I may be wrong.

Nothing much may come of it. Or Kevin may get the hero into hot water at some point. Or he may deliver a timely bit of information about the true nature of the coworker (I'm not sure I trust her...). Thing is, at least I know why he's doing what he's doing, even when all he's got is a couple of lines.

Kevin thinks he's the star. He thinks he'll get the girl.

I think Helen Bonham would be proud...


Charles Gramlich said...

very good point about how everyone sees themselves as the lead role in their own private movie, and that characters should be the same in books and stories. I need to keep that front and center in my head.

I have yet to read one of the Harry Potters, although I have the first one close to the top of my pile. From all I've heard I will like them immensely.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Great point, Steve. Though I write narratives and finally had to break the fourth wall with "Ghost Writer In My Eye," about a character who believes that his life is a series of failed story attempts by another writer. Not certain I can follow the thought as Charles might, but it is something to keep in my head. For whenever I write something involving more than TWO people, ha ha.

avery said...

I like to think about the 'hero' thing when it comes to death and writing The End for my characters. We all like to think of ourselves as the hero. We watch Tom Cruise sprint through the streets as people are crushed and zapped by aliens and think we'd be him, getting away. In all likelihood, we (or at least I, slow runner that I am) would be the on the business end of the laser, rapidly turning to dust. And on the History Channel, we watch the tale of one person who survived a bloody battle where hundreds died. Still, we optimistically identify with the one who lived and not with the piles of deceased, whom we'd statistically have a better chance of being one of. Humans are so self-involved that we just can't imagine our story ending medias-res. We all think we're going to make it age one hundred, that we'll be the ones there for the grand finale.

That's how I like to write my characters' deaths. I make them (and hopefully the reader) think they're in with the hero lot, that they're going to be among the numbers of those who make it. I convince them they're not expendable. And then I turn them into big piles of dust.

Kate S said...

What a great post, Steve. Gave me food for thought, though I am hyperventilating after reading Charles' comment that he hasn't read any of the HP books. I'm afraid that would put him at risk of being burned at the stake in my neck of the woods. Which is too bad, I really like Charles. I only hope he'll soon repent and mend his ways.