Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mark Twain Rule No. 3: Make Your Characters Act Like Real People

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More words of writing wisdom from Mark Twain:

. . . the personages of the tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and . . . the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.

This is Twain’s way of saying that your characters should behave and talk like real people.

Sounds simple, but it isn’t.  As writers, we sometimes have bizarre ideas of how human beings behave or talk.  In an attempt to impress readers with our wit, style, or intelligence, we may end up with characters who do things no real person would do or say things no real person would say.  Instead of impressing readers, we leave them with the impression that we’ve never seen or talked to another human being!

 My Cousin, My Unbelievable Lawyer

One of my favorite examples of characters behaving in unbelievable ways is the film My Cousin Vinny, starring Joe Pesci.  The movie goes to great lengths to establish Vinny (Pesci) as the proverbial fish out of water.  A lawyer from New York who has only recently passed the bar (after six attempts!), Vinny tries to defend his cousin against a murder charge in the Deep South. 

While the film is entertaining at times, the first half drags along with scenes that establish Vinny as an inept boob.  He gets his car stuck in mud and ruins his only suit, he’s held in contempt of court for careless infractions, and he doesn’t know basic court procedures.  We get it that Vinny’s not the best choice to defend a client from a parking ticket, let alone murder.  But credibility is stretched past the breaking point.

In fact, the only way Vinny emerges as a credible lawyer is to be pitted against a southern judge, prosecutor, and witnesses who are equally inept.

The characters in My Cousin Vinny are drawn as broadly as possible for maximum comic effect. While this was a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers, it prevents me from getting fully lost in the story because the characters are too unbelievable.

You Can't Handle the Truth (But You Can Handle Characters)

For comparison, check out A Few Good Men, starring Tom Cruise.  This film is also about an inexperienced trial lawyer who takes on a murder case, but the characters behave like real people. 

Cruise’s Lt. Kaffee is cocky and self-involved and does not believe he can get his clients off, regardless of whether they are guilty or not.  However, he demonstrates a wily competence and even brilliance in cross-examining witnesses and outwitting the prosecution.  This combination of good and bad traits, of brilliance and self-involvement give Kaffee a degree of credibility as a character.

That credibility pays off huge story-telling dividends in the end when Kaffee goes up against the imposing Col. Jessep (Jack Nicholson).  We understand what's at stake for Kaffee and his clients if he does not win.  More important, the outcome is believable because Kaffee is believable.

It may be unfair to compare a comedy to a drama, but Twain’s advice holds true either way.  A Few Good Men shines because the characters behave like human beings.  My Cousin Vinny is only passably entertaining because its broadly drawn caricatures serve the needs of the plot.

What do you think?  What’s your favorite example of characters acting or not acting like real human beings?


Dave Whitaker said...

Greg, I think this is an excellent point. As you acknowledge, it may be unfair to compare a comedy to a drama, but I think of a comment I read recently about the movie Cars 2. I thought the original movie developed some wonderful characters and achieved the rare feat of creating a children's movie with adult appeal as well. This was largely the critic's assessment, but one comment berated him for expecting too much from a kids' movie. Regardless of genre - be it a movie or a book - what shapes a story and makes it a classic are its characters. People will relate to characters who feel real and believable, regardless of the kind of story.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

I agree, Dave. Telling someone they expect too much from a kids' movie sells both the movie and kids short.

Kristi's Book Nook said...

One of my old favorites is Stand By Me. The movie portrayed the kids in a setting that was real. I liked the way the kids acted with each other. I loved the characters, setting and dialogue. Thanks.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

I've never seen Stand by Me, Kristi, though I just read the summary on Wikipedia. I like how the plot does not seem far fetched or overly dramatic. It reads like something that might really happen to four boys.

Dave Whitaker said...

Ha ha! I can't help but point out an amusing irony about referencing "Stand by Me". Obviously, as Kristi points out, the heart of the story is about the characters and their interactions and how they feel very real. (I agree, Kristi - an excellent movie). Considering that Greg quotes Twain saying, "the personages of the tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses," I can't let it slide that the premise behind "Stand by Me" is that the kids are journeying to see a dead body. ;)

Kristi's Book Nook said...

That's funny Dave. Greg really needs to watch Stand By Me and he will better understand some of my stories. I love this kind of stuff and aspire to write like Stephen King.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

Good catch, Dave!

I wonder what Twain would have made of zombies . . .

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