I love watching movies and TV. Love being transported by the stories and entertained by the characters. Lately, I’ve been keying in on something, though, that is helping me with building characters in my fiction.
It’s defined by good ol’ Webster’s as “a subtle or small distinction,” but I’m finding that it could be defined as “the difference between real-life and stereotypical characters.” It’s the subtle ways we show who are characters are. The little hints we plant that let the true heart peek through. The barest hint of something lurking in a smile…the slight twitch at the corner of the eye…the tremor in the hands…a stiffening of the back…
Little actions with huge impact.
One of the biggest mistakes writers make is crafting characters that are stereotypical, clichéd, or over-the-top. Especially villains. But few people in real life are that black and white. We need to create characters who live and breath—and who aren’t quite so clear-cut in their words and actions. Let’s use some nuance in our writing.
So how do we find these nuanced elements to breathe life into our characters? I’m discovering them in the actors who bring TV shows and movies to life. I realized this while watching a scene of one of my favorite shows: Law & Order. It was in an episode called “Fluency,” and features prosecutor Jack McCoy. He was questioning a man who manufactured a bogus flu vaccine, then sold it to those who would sell it to doctors. As a result, people who thought themselves protected, weren’t. And sixteen of those people died. This is one of my favorite scenes because McCoy uses a great movie, The Third Man, to make a powerful point. But this time, when I watched the scene, I started asking myself why I like McCoy’s character so much. And what I like—and don’t like–about his mannerisms. For example, his voice gets too strident for me when he lets things get to him during a trial. But in this scene, the way the memory of the movie hits him, and the way he relates it to the accused…it is, for me, perfect. His expressions, the movements of his hands, his tone of voice…all nuanced in such a way as to show McCoy, realizing as he talks, how perfect the parallels are between the movie and what this man has done. And the man’s reaction? That, too, was perfect.
Which led me to thinking about other nuanced actors:
Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
Jim Carry in The Majestic
Robin Williams—have you seen him in a serious role? Amazing.
(just a side note: I found it interesting how some of our funniest, and over-the-top actors can also be the most powerfully nuanced.)
Haley Joel Osmet in The Sixth Sense
Mel Gibson in Signs
Kevin Spacey in…well, most any role he’s played.
Robert Taylor in Longmire
Thomas Gibson in Criminal Minds
Tim Roth in Lie to Me
Ernie Pantusso in Cheers
Summer Glau in Firefly (and the movie, Serenity)
I’m sure you have lists of your own. So I encourage you to watch them again. And this time, when you do so, let them help you gain a better understanding of nuanced actions, words, tone of voice, body language…all those things we use to put the flesh on our characters’ bones. Ask yourself what you like—or don’t like—about the characters. And study the performances. Then put what you see and hear and learn to use.
Your characters—and your readers—will thank you.
Oh, and if you’d like to see it, the Law & Order scene is here. Have fun!