It’s Wild Card Wednesday–the day anything can happen. Today we’re going to discuss the way little revelations can draw a complete character picture.
The topic for this post came to me this weekend. Family business took me to my hometown. I saw aunts, uncles, and cousins I don’t get to see often enough. One of my cousins has this little Yorkie. She’s had the dog about fifteen years, and the dog travels with the family.
Saturday night, we all went to dinner at Chili’s. My cousin put the Yorkie in one of those purse style dog carriers and waltzed into Chili’s big as you please. We were seated and ate our dinner without a word about the dog. And it wasn’t as though the dog was concealed or really even very quiet.
The writer in me observed all this with great interest. Not everybody get away with bringing a dog into an eating establishment. My cousin can. She just has that kind of personality.
Conveying character is one of the hardest jobs a fiction writer has. Writing books and writing instructors advise revealing character just a little at time.
Nobody wants a brand new acquaintance at a party to whip out her iPhone and start playing her water birth videos. It’s nothing shameful, but it is too much too soon. Fiction readers feel the same way. They are unable to comprehend too much character too fast.
The Yorkie in the carrier at Chili’s would have been a perfect character revealing detail in a book.
How about a movie example? The Lincoln Lawyer is a 2005 novel by Michael Connelly that was made into a movie in 2011. It has one of the most masterful revelations of character I’ve ever seen or read.
[Note: I’m going to talk about the movie, but the book and movie are very similar. There are no spoilers here. I’m talking about the first fifteen minutes of the movie.]
Mickey Haller (played by Matthew McConaughey) is introduced in an opening sequence which illustrates a normal morning for him. He comes into focus in the back of chauffered Lincoln Town Car. He exits the car and enters the courthouse where he is shadowed by a man telling him about a job.
It becomes obvious through conversation that the man is a bail bondsman who steers clients to Mickey Haller in exchange for some unnamed favor. This is only the beginning of Mickey’s hustles. Within a few more minutes, the audience knows Mickey bribes courthouse officials with “Christmas gifts.”
In addition to under-the-table hustles, Mickey is a master of the legal hustle. When a client tries to stiff him for payment, Mickey legally delays the case. When the client’s cohorts–a biker gang–hunt Mickey down to pay their buddy’s bill, it becomes obvious Mickey has a loose definition of justice. He is knowingly representing the operator of an illegal “farm.”
That Mickey’s car is his office only adds to his characterization. Of course, a guy like this wouldn’t have an office. For one thing, he wouldn’t want to be too easy to find. For another thing, a guy like this might do well enough financially, but he wouldn’t be rich. His clients are not the cream of the criminal crop.
If it’s not obvious who Mickey Haller is, his driver tells Mickey he’d have done okay on the streets toward the end of the opening sequence.
In just a few minutes, the audience knows all about Mickey Haller. He is an unshakable hustler with a loose moral code. The question of Mr. Haller’s moral limits begs to be answers. What would shake this man to his core? The Lincoln Lawyer does a good job of answering that question.
For those who are curious how this style of characterization looks in print, please read The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly. The book is every bit as entertaining as the movie. Mr. Connelly is a master at drawing characters.