Friday, January 25, 2008

Characters & Writers

from Jacqueline

In this post:

What We Can Learn From Movies
The Writers’ Strike – another perspective

Remaining on the subject of the silver screen, following Jim’s post about book-to-film/tv adaptations yesterday, it’s interesting the snippets of insight you can gain from watching a movie, especially when it comes to developing character, or having a sense of staging a scene. I tend to have those a-ha moments when listening to audio books too, but then it’s more of a sense of rhythm, and sometimes a fascination for the way a writer has strung together words to provide an image that touches me to the core. However, back to the movies. Last week we rented “Bobby,” written and directed by Emilio Estevez. I don’t know why I didn’t see it at the movie theater, because I really liked it. I enjoy movies where different characters are brought together in the same place at the same time, perhaps crossing paths with each other, perhaps not. “California Suite,” the film adaptation of Neil Simon’s play (Plaza Suite) was like that. I also like to watch the “Special Features” at the end of a rented movie – you never know what you might learn. This time, it was a comment from the wardrobe mistress (do they still call them by that old-fashioned name? Or are they costume designers?). She said that when each actor comes to her studio, to talk about their costumes for a movie, she asks them about their character. The question that tells her more about the charcter, that guides her in pulling together the costumes, is, “What do you have in your pocket?” Ooooohhhh, that’s a good question, I thought. I have various questions I ask myself about my characters, but that one was good, maybe better than, “What’s in her purse,” or “What’s in that briefcase he’s carrying.” Mind you, it made me think about my own pockets – in the dog-walking jacket: a poop bag, clutch of Kleenex (I’ve had The Cold), three Hall’s mentholyptus lozenges and a lip-salve.

I thought the next few paragraphs would provide a good addition to today’s offering from me. Without shame, I have taken an excerpt from a column by The Independent’s (British newspaper) Terence Blacker on the writers' strike here in America. Blacker is not only a columnist, but worked in publishing for some ten years and has written novels for both adults and children. Here’s what he has to say:

“The strike has been impressive on several levels. Writers are by nature competitive – when John Cheever wrote that "the rivalry among novelists is quite as intense as that among sopranos", he could have been referring to anyone who tries to put sentences together for a living. Yet the American writers' strike has been solid and pitilessly executed. Here, the approach would have been rather more nervous and tentative, starting with a work-to-rule restricting the use of metaphors and similes, escalating under pressure to something tougher – perhaps an all-out ban on adjectives.

But the American writers, in addition to arguing very sensibly that they are owed a decent share of any digital and downloading cash that may be going, have made a larger, incidental point. [Stephen} Colbert's joke about the teleprompter reading his thoughts and dictating them back to him has an element of truth. Until the strike, the ability to read or learn someone else's lines was invariably mistaken for genuine charm or intelligence.

Taking those words away has been a useful reminder. The various descriptions of TV interviewers and frontmen – witty, sincere, perceptive, hard-hitting, sympathetic – should really be presented in heavy inverted commas. An essential part of their act, the back legs of the donkey, was provided by a scurfy, unlovely writer. So were many of the thoughts, quips and insights of the celebrity guests.

The culture is now so enslaved to the image of things, their glossy surface, that even those who should know better fall for the illusion. A newspaper article commenting on the luck of authors whose books have been made into successful films – The Kite Runner, Atonement, No Country for Old Men – included a comment from a publisher who was thrilled that books were reaching a new audience.

As usual, the truth is being turned upside down. It is Hollywood and publishers who should be grateful – the films were successful because one day a person, sitting alone in his or her room, put together characters and a story that would later translate successfully to the screen. In fact, the fate of the Oscar ceremony, currently in the balance because of the strike, might serve as a useful metaphor for most of the entertainment business. Take away the writers, and all the gloss, fame and glamour that money can buy is as nothing.”

And I’ll leave you with that thought. In the meantime, what’s in your pocket – or in the pockets of your characters?

Have a great weekend!


  1. Yes, indeed. It all starts with the written word.

    And I love that very British phrase, a "scurfy, unlovely writer."

  2. Talk about stringing together some beautiful words...

    I try to come up with "telling details" for all my characters. Tucker has an old steamer trunk that once belonged to a grandmother she never met. It's filled with photographs of people she will never know and memories that were never shared. Since SHORT CHANGE, she carries a mini flashlight in her purse because one never knows when one will have to go creeping around in the dark.

  3. On the money, Jackie.

    Writers like Paul and his friends are making inroads many of will benefit from in the future.

    I start with secondary characters because that is who usually interests me in books, movies adn TV shows.

    Earl's brother, Berta the housekeeper, any Alan Rickman character, all fascinate me.


  4. from Jacqueline

    Yes, we Brits can come out with some interesting phrases. Personally, I like the idea of an all-out ban on adjectives, with industrial action on metaphors and similies.

    And I love the idea of a flashlight, Patty. Maisie Dobbs usually has a Victorinox knife with her.

    Jim - I've always liked Alan Rickman. What they call in Britain, a "thinking woman's crumpet." Hmmmm ....

  5. "A thinking woman's crumpet."

    Once again, we are humbled by the British wordmeisters.

    But Jacqueline, did you know that in Jim Born's salad days, he searched in vain for the "macho man's strumpet."

  6. Beautifully said, and so insightful as usual, Jacqueline. :-D

    I am still building my mystery universe despite copious notes and scenelettes, so I haven't gotten to my Marti's (short for Martine - her father was a Hammer House film fan) pockets yet. However, she has returned home to England after running away from things for 18 months - a result from a 'double tragedy'. Unable to settle, Marti's touring the countryside in an old London Taxi she found at a country dealership, and she's steadily filling it with objects that appeal to her. One of them is an old field painting kit that has the paint and dust of ages all over it. As an artist just finding her feet again, this means a lot.

    Meanwhile, I've been writing kids books and bits: no pockets on dinosaurs or dragons. :-D


    PS: My name is finally on the attendance list for Bouchercon. :-D Will you be attending? I know Patty is...

  7. from Jacqueline

    Hmmmm, Jim and the macho man's strumpet - there's one for the books!

    Keep writing, Marianne - love the idea of a London taxi. I've not signed up for Bouchercon yet. Still can't make up my mind, however, if the rest of the Naked Authors team are going, I probably will. I confess, I always feel a bit lost at these big meetings - like a thirteen year old wallflower at the school dance.

  8. "I confess, I always feel a bit lost at these big meetings - like a thirteen year old wallflower at the school dance."

    Oh, I know that feeling sooo well. My first few years going to science fiction conventions over here subsisted of that feeling entirely. After awhile, I just said 'bugger it' and people watched and made my own friends and contacts at cons. One long time friend of my husbands, who he's known for 20 or so years, asked me what my name was again - after having known me for three years. Makes you feel about an inch tall. :-D

    I want to sit on some panels at Bouchercon, meet a few people face to face, people watch, and meet Cornelia in the bar for a drink or two. :-D

    Can't wait for your new book next month!

    PS: I finally publish a new book review on my blog, and it's a kiddies picture book. One of these days I'll get back to writing the big ones. :-)

  9. LEt me rephrasse that: I want to ATTEND a few panels at Bouchercon...


  10. Oh, Our J, what a wonderful essay! I am feeling particularly scurfy and unlovely today in all this rain. It seems as though our house is only moments from sliding off the hill and into the bay.

    On the bright side, that would mean I won't have to finish folding all this damn laundry.

  11. Marianne. OK, I'm leaning towards going to Bouchercon, so hopefully will see you there.

    Miss C - you fold your laundry? My mother used to have a cupboard she referred to as "the glory hole" into which all the unfolded laundry was thrown. If you wanted something, you had to scramble through until you found it. This is why I started doing all my own laundry at a very young age, and could wield an iron even sooner! And all this before we even had a washing machine. I think every home should have one or more glory holes for different purposes. We have a glory garage.

  12. Yeah, I fold laundry too. Except the underwear. Pairing up all of those socks is painful enough. I put my foot down a few years ago, and now we send all of the dirty t-shirts to the local laundrette where THEY have to fold the &%#@#$% things. Urk.


  13. What a great post! Like you, I'm inspired by characters in movies. My husband is always teasing me because I have to see the special features on the DVD. I generally find some little nugget I can put into my writing. The interviews on "Fresh Air" on NPR are particularly good for this also.

    Sandra Hamlett

  14. Thanks, Sandra, for your comment - and you're absolutely right about "Fresh Air" - you never know what little snippet you might pick up that contributes to your work as a writer.