Weekly Musing: Something Different

This week I thought I’d talked about a movie I recently watched and what caught my attention as a writer. This won’t be a movie review, there are plenty of site for that, rather I’ll be examining the narrative structure, dialogue, and character development of Dunkirk.

First, let’s examine the narrative structure of the movie. While it doesn’t break any ground in structure, I still found it intriguing. Christopher Nolan, who in addition to directing the film also wrote and produced it, utilizes a non-linear approach. He uses flashbacks at appropriate times to develop certain characters but to also show the chain of events which took a dicey situation into a disaster. Nolan makes it easy to keep track of the back and forth which to me is tricky. There are books I’ve read which have done this back and forth is such a sloppy way I couldn’t keep track of where I was in the timeline.

Using a non-linear approach to storytelling is tricky no matter what the medium is. Perhaps it’s easy for a visual medium, perhaps it’s easier for the written word. I truly don’t know. There are some people who simply cannot follow anything straight forward. That’s fine. All our brains are wired differently. The film makes it easy because from the start the audience is given a notation of 1 week or 1 day letting us know what is going on. Nothing more is needed to explain what Nolan is doing.

Next, I’ll examine the dialogue or the rather shockingly lack of dialogue in Dunkirk. Normally, I am someone who loves dialogue and believes it is the best way to show character. But with this movie, I find myself appreciating its sparseness. It simply does not need it except where appropriate. According to the Wikipedia entry for the movie the dialogue for the movie is only 76 pages. A page of dialogue for a script equals 1 minute of spoken dialogue. This gives the impression the movie is only 76 minutes long movie, but it is 1 hour and 45 minutes long.

Nolan’s philosophy toward the movie was to focus solely on the event itself. No need for big speeches from military men or Churchill. No need to show the enemy. In fact, the only interaction the movie deals with the enemy are pieces of paper which floated down upon the French and English soldiers printed by the Germans showing them how they were surrounded on the beach in the opening few minutes. That’s all that is needed; not discussions between characters as to what it means. In a traditional war movie we would get nothing but grandiose speeches by military men and politicians and explanations for just how difficult each decision was.

The lack of dialogue creates an intimate sense each character is operating on instinct. For example, dialogue would have ruined a scene in which two characters pick up the gurney of a wounded soldier left behind on the beach after a German bombing. They realize he is still alive and know their best and only chance to leave is to pick him up and hustle him to the medical boat, the only boat authorized to leave. Through their actions the audience gets what they’re doing. They know what they’re doing. To have them talk about it would quite frankly come across as 1) info dumping purely for the audience’s sake, and 2) make them sound stupid. The reality of it is I doubt many of the people sat around discussing themselves or the war. It simply wasn’t what was on their mind. What mattered was surviving long enough to get off that damn beach and go home.

The most dialogue comes between the interaction of a captain of a small civilian boat enlisted by the navy, his son, his son’s friend, and a stray army officer they pick up along the way. This is effective because it focuses the attention on heroes we aren’t used to seeing on screen. The audience later finds out why so many civilian vessels were enlisted to help near 400,000 men get off a beach.

Finally, I’d like to examine Nolan’s approach to characters. I am someone who lacks stories to be character-driven rather than plot-driven. Characters are how I make, or don’t make, an emotional connection to the overall story. However, Dunkirk is truly plot-driven. That’s not to say it doesn’t have characters the audience doesn’t care about. With a large ensemble cast, a mixture of well-known actors such as such as Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy, Nolan instead focuses primarily on young, unknown actors and their story.

From the start Dunkirk is intentionally vague with information about the characters, their backgrounds, and honestly, even their names. No matter what medium, the audience gets information early on about why we should or shouldn’t like a character. We usually get bits of relevant backstory so that the audience clearly understands the stakes for each character. In war movies, the characters are taken one step further in that we also get to know the military men and politicians behind the decisions.

In Dunkirk, we do not get this nor is it really needed. Enough is given so we feel how harrowing each of their stories is. Though it is a historical movie, and it’s easy enough to look up how it ends, I teared up and empathized with the characters. From the army officer pleading with a civilian boat captain to not go to Dunkirk to the young men beaten by the Germans to the air force pilots circling the beach to bring down enemy planes, I had an emotional connection to them.

As a writer, watching a movie like Dunkirk shows how effective storytelling can be when it breaks a few rules. Granted, I think the primary reason why it works is because of top notch acting so the sparse dialogue, non-linear storytelling, and lack of character development works. Though I know there are books which employ one or all of these traits, I think it’s more difficult. The movie certainly challenged me to re-examine my thoughts on plot-driven stories. I don’t know if it has inspired to me to try my hand at a non-traditional story structure; I think that is something very few have a talent for. But like reading outside one’s genre, it’s important to examine how other mediums tell a story.

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Weekly Musing: I Don’t Like You

A subject which has been floating around in my head for a while is what is the difference between unlikeable vs. unlikeable as it relates to a character? What I mean by this is what is it about a character that makes a reader want to go along on their journey even if that character isn’t easy to root for or like? The easy answer is it is all subjective. Each reader and each writer responds differently to a character. It’s why some people love the villains more than the hero. Or why some people prefer the girl pick the billionaire over the sweet, but broke, guy. Or why we can root for a character like Dexter Morgan even though he’s a serial killer.

So why does the piece of advice frequently given to newer writers to not have an unlikeable protagonist exist? Or at the very least don’t make them so unlikeable at the beginning because then the reader won’t want to take a journey with them. It makes me wonder how valid this piece of advice is. Is there an assumption that a majority of readers only want a “perfect” protagonist? I think this leads to many writers believing the protagonist has to be a good person who has bad stuff happen to them. Or somehow a less than pristine character cannot possibly resonate with readers. Or if those goods are damaged then the expectation is our imperfect protagonist will be made more perfect by the conclusion of the story.

Since we are dealing with fiction shouldn’t the characters in those stories reflect the variety of people we know and interact with in our daily lives? In my opinion, the answer is yes and that means telling the story of an “unlikeable” character. After all, isn’t his or her life and story just as valid as someone who is more universally agreeable? Yes, fiction is escapism, but that shouldn’t mean a less than agreeable character shouldn’t be the star. Also, it can be boring to have a protagonist who is just so gosh darn likeable all the time. Please have a wart or a bunch, please!

Yet there are times I sit in my critique group and listen to feedback giving, the word unlikeable comes out and often in a negative way. Or as I listen to people discuss a show, movie, or book and complain how unlikeable a main character is. Many times when I hear the reasons why someone finds a character unlikeable it is clear to me it’s a purely subjective thing. This is fine as we all have types we don’t like.

But what floors me is when people take it a step further. What I mean by this is when people express that kind of unlikeable character shouldn’t be in anything, ever. Take a character like Dexter Morgan. Serial killer of killers. Taker out of the trash. Hard to like a person like that yet Dexter Morgan does click with readers, and later TV viewers until the show got ruined. But there is also a large group of people who read the first few chapters of a book and went, “Nope, not for me.”

What concerns me as a writer is when I hear fellow writers give feedback that a character isn’t likeable and offer suggestions to soften the character to be more likeable. Granted, suggestions made after only reading the first chapter or two of a story in general tends to be a bit nebulous as we don’t know what kind of character development will take place. Sometimes it’s intentional and when I’ve not liked a character I try to explain why beyond “I just didn’t like this person.” Sometimes the writer has written a character too extreme without realizing it so it can be good to hear how a character is coming across.

Another reason why it concerns me is because perhaps it’s a reflection of this notion that nothing can be offensive or negative. It’s like living inside a Disney movie where everyone is so good with the exception of one or two people who are cartoony and unrealistic villains. Life isn’t a Disney movie and again, people exist in the world who aren’t good people, who you aren’t going to want to be friends with, and who view life differently. For some I guess that makes a character too unlikeable to read.

And how is an unlikeable character different from a villain? Some villains are easy to like, even love, and easy to root for yet a character that isn’t evil or have ill intent may not be someone you like. It comes down to motivation. A well-constructed villain views himself or herself as the hero of their own story. Perhaps there is something in their past that in a perverse way justifies what bad they are doing. Other times it’s plain fun rooting for the baddie.

I know that worrying about if my main character is likeable or not has given me pause many times. But a piece of advice I frequently come back to is everything comes back to being true to the character and the story. None of us are likeable all of the time. The trick then is to make the unlikeable character relatable in some way. Keep in mind many readers will “get” it even if the character isn’t someone they would normally like in real life. If their story is interesting, the reader will stick with them. Then there are those readers who truly won’t understand or care if a character is not absolutely likeable from the beginning. That’s okay. Losing readers because of reader preference is not the end of the world despite what some may say.

Weekly Musing: Quite a Character

Something any writer must be able to do is have the ability to create characters. Or at least have good enough hearing to pay attention to when a character pops into your head with a story to tell. Character creation is one thing I’m not sure a lot of readers realize can come from anywhere. Some are created from scratch by the author while others come to the author. A big reason why it’s never a good idea to think a story is a reflection of the author as a person unless noted otherwise.

For me, it seems most of my characters just come to me. I even hesitate using the phrase “my characters” as I don’t think I own these characters. Even though they live in a fictional world, they are still real to some degree. What I mean by characters come to me is either I’ll be trying to sleep or reading, watching TV, or doing something else when a complete stranger pops into my head to say hello. If I’m lucky then maybe they bring me a gift, or curse, depends on the situation, of a story they’d like to have told.

Most of the time I’m not so lucky. The stranger just presents himself or herself to me and it’s up to me to figure out what to do with them. When it’s up to me to figure out what a character wants, it takes a lot of “talking” to figure out what he or she wants to say. Even when the character comes with a story, it’s still up to me to interview him or her so we can get to know each other better.

Other times, though, I’ll have an idea for a story and what kind of main character it should be about. When this happens, I naturally start with the basics of gender, age, and physical appearance but beyond the superficial I rely upon the character’s actions in the story to show me who they are.

Rarely do I sit down and say that I am going to have a story with a certain type of character. This is something I have been considering more as I think about how to push myself creatively. Sometimes it’s something like having a character of a different ethnic background from previous works. Sometimes it is creating a character based upon a piece of history I read. Sometimes it’s as simple as wanting to see certain kind of character more in literature and I don’t think I’m reading enough of that particular kind.

In the past I’ve tried using character sheets since it appeals to my natural organized personality, but I found them too tedious. Previously I’ve discussed some of the other reasons why I don’t care for them. A couple of years later and I still feel many of the questions are characters sheets are irrelevant to discovering who the character is. Yes, experiences shape a person but I failed to see how being the oldest child in a family had anything to do with a story in which family wasn’t a theme. Another problem I have with character sheets is often times the questions seem meant for characters and stories set in modern times.

What I do now instead of character sheets is simply brainstorm. I allow stream of consciousness to take over and list what kind of person the character thinks she or he is, what it is he or she wants (a big thing to know before the story starts), any quirks he or she may have, etc. During the brainstorming phase I’ll discover potential minor characters and what their role might be.

The bulk of creating a character for me, though, doesn’t come from filling out character sheets or brainstorming or “speaking” with them but from actually writing the story’s rough draft. As many writers experience, even with plans characters have a way of changing everything by doing what they want to do. To me this is when characters come to life. Think about it. We can all list what kind of person we think we are but it’s not until we are put into a situation that our true self comes out. Why should this be any different for a fictional character?

That’s not to say that someone who is demure suddenly becomes aggressive because he or she is put into a particular situation. There’s a line between change born of an organic cause to acting out of character. But just as in real life, it’s the story that reveals what character. That’s why when it comes to developing a character, for me it is a combination of doing pre-story legwork while allowing for the story to show who the character really is.

As you can see, creating a character isn’t a simple process. For me it’s not a simple process but I’m sure for others it is more straightforward. Whatever method you use as a writer as long as you still come out with interesting and compelling characters then it works.