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07/06/2002 - The Tell

A movie called HURLYBURLY came out in 1998 and I was anxious to check out the remarkable cast including Kevin Spacey, Sean Penn, Chazz Palminteri, Garry Shandling, etc. What I remember the most about that movie however, was something revealed by one of the female characters played by Robin Wright Penn.

A single mannerism used by Wright Penn struck me more than any line she could have said. The scene was a Hollywood party and the actress's character Darlene wove through a swank crowd looking for someone. As she moved she touched her hairdo, over and over. It was a many-layered cut, difficult to style and looked professionally done, and she kept touching pieces of hair to make sure that it was in place.

It was such a telling gesture that revealed so much about the externally-oriented character. Darlene was so clearly focused on her outer image and the acceptance of others that she was manipulated easily by other characters who saw her weakness and exploited it. Later in the story she easily slips out of one relationship when a more glamorous love opportunity arrives. The hair touching gave away her low-self esteem; her shallowness.

Great lines are great, but physical gestures can reveal more, especially when a character is first introduced. I can't tell you how to write, but I can tell you how a reader meets a character on the page for the first time. Readers need to "see" the character beyond a mere physical description or a dictated personality trait.

Physical behavior is especially important when we meet our hero. Readers don't always need to be told that we're meeting our hero. Too often heroes are announced like the King of France, with all sorts of idolatry thrown into the action line. When a character is described as perfect and perfectly likeable, I feel cheated of the opportunity to decide that for myself.

Other times the screenwriter talks about the hero in a global way, which yanks me out of the linear story. A hero is often described as a "nice guy, with a wild streak", instead of being shown as having "a friendly smile, but dressed for a night club", or something like that. Give your hero a description that either displays or implies action upon his part. Don't summarize his character, just show us what we'd think if we met him at a party, or walking down the street.

In SUPERMAN Christopher Reeve had Clark Kent fiddle with his glasses, but he wasn't just fiddling, he was hiding. In MIDNIGHT RUN Robert De Niro constantly listened to the watch given him by his ex-wife, a habit that prepared the audience for the heartbreak of his past betrayal. STAR TREK TNG showed Patrick Stewart always tugging at his Captain's uniform, ever the commander. What do your characters do?

If you can't think of anything, don't hurry to throw in the clich?s such as smoking, strange clothing, compulsive nasal decongestant spraying, etc. Work to discover a character trait that gives your character more than just static description or stage business. Foreshadow the crucial decisions and actions that come deeper into the story by finding a gesture, minor physical goal within the scene or nervous tick that tells us not only who the character is, but WHAT their character is.


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