The writer who can master the art and craft of defining their characters by their actions is going to be the author whose work gets read. By lots and lots of folks… Enough, hopefully, that you’ll never again have to say to someone about the novel you’ve written that it’s “only available in my room.”
Most of us as fiction writers flesh out our characters with the use of description, via dialogue, by the interior thoughts of characters and by similar methods. All of these are good techniques and work well in the short story and novel.
However, if the author ignores the use of using physical actions to help create their characters and to also show how they’ve evolved due to the events that happen along the way in the story (that character arc us writing teachers are always talking about), they’re missing what can be the most powerful tool of all.
This is an area where we can really make our novels come alive and impact the reader on a much deeper level.
The use of description is perhaps the weakest of the novelist’s tools in terms of character description. What of the following makes more of an impact in the reader’s mind? To read: “Elizabeth was an arthritic old woman.” Or, to read: Elizabeth labored up the stairs, a painful step at a time. She paused at each step, grasped the handrail with both hands and forced her ancient legs up yet another step.
The second example wins, hands-down. Why? Because we “see” an action the character takes and because we see it happening it has an emotional impact on us. In the first example, we’re “told” what the character is (arthritic). Doesn’t make much of an impression at all. Not even close to the impression we get when we see her inching painfully up the stairs.
This is important enough that I’ll say it again: Characters are defined best and on a deeper level by their actions. As are their character arcs. You know, that deal where the character emerges at the end of the story a different person than when the story began as a result of all they’d gone through during the course of the tale.
Why? Because they experience what the character does and what the character experiences at the same time the character does. They’re not being “told” this character has undergone a sea change and asked to take it on faith—they “see” it with their own eyes, and are therefore convinced to a degree not remotely possible with the author “telling” them there’s been a change via their thoughts or any of the other aforementioned techniques.
A movie that illustrates brilliantly how all this can be accomplished through the character’s actions is screenwriter Callie Khouri’s Thelma & Louise. It’s one of those rare movies that provide many, many teaching moments that can be valuable to fiction writers.
The basic plot of Thelma & Louise, is that two friends plan to go on a weekend getaway fishing in the mountains. On the way there, they stop at a roadhouse for a quick drink or two and Thelma gets sexually attacked by Harlan in the parking lot. Louise saves her friend by putting a gun to Harlan’s head just as he’s trying to penetrate Thelma. Situation defused, Harlan just has to say one last insult and Louise shoots and kills him. The women flee the scene and the rest of the movie is basically a chase scene, ending with the women opting for suicide rather than to go prison.
The plot is fairly simple on the surface, but the characterizations Khouri has created of these people make this an extremely complex film. What is magnificent about their characterizations is that they are each revealed chiefly through their actions. Virtually every single line in the script and every moment on the screen can be studied to your gain.
I’ve watched this movie more than two hundred times and each time learned something new, both from the script Khouri has created and from the brilliant work these talented actors and the director Ridley Scott bring to the project.
The structure of movies used to be that roughly the first ten minutes serve as the “setup.” This is where the principle characters are introduced and we learn who they are and what their situation is and the inciting incident and story problem are dramatized. This is no longer screenplay structure, but there will usually be a bit of setup.
In the beginning of the setup of Thelma & Louise, there are a series of intercuts between the dual protagonists. We see Louise (played by Susan Sarandon) at her work—slinging hash in a Denny’s-type restaurant. We see Thelma at home with her emotionally-abusive and immature husband Darryl, a guy who’s transcended the role of male chauvinist pig to that of male chauvinist hog.
What actions does she perform that define her character? The very first one is her dialogue with Louise. The movie opens with Louise at a pay phone at the restaurant calling Thelma, asking her if she’s ready to leave on her trip. Here’s the way it looks in the script:
* * *
(at pay phone)
I hope you’re packed, little sister, ‘cause we are outta here tonight.
(By the way, when Louise calls her “little sister,” this also defines their relationship. As you’ll see, Louise begins in an almost “mother” role and Thelma as the child and in the very first line of dialogue in the movie, Khouri has already begun to define that relationship.
* * *
Thelma responds with her first dialogue, which likewise immediately begins to define her character.
* * *
INT. THELMA’S KITCHEN—MORNING
Well, wait now. I still have to ask Darryl if I can go.
* * *
Right off the bat, we can tell from what she says to Louise that she’s one of those “dutiful little wives.” We don’t know at this point if Darryl is her boyfriend or husband, but we do know from what she says that she feels she has to get permission from him, and that bespeaks volumes about their relationship, whichever it is.
But, as Louise answers her offscreen on the phone, and we hear Louise’s voice, Khouri gives Thelma a great piece of “actor’s business” (action) that really shows her character and where she’s at in her relationship with Darryl.
Here’s Khouri’s action for her character (italics mine):
* * *
Thelma has the phone tucked under her chin as she cuts out coupons from the newspaper and pins them on a bulletin board already covered with them. We see various recipes torn out from women’s magazines along the lines of “101 Ways to Cook Pork.”
* * *
If that action doesn’t show us who Thelma is and what kind of person she is, nothing ever will! In less than fifteen seconds on the screen, Khouri has given us both a bit of dialogue and a specific action that deliver us a three-dimensional character and speaks volumes about who she is.
Then, after she hangs up from her conversation with Louise, Thelma goes to the bottom of the stairs, leans on the banister, and yells up, “Darryl! Honey, you’d better hurry up!”
Again, with dialogue, she’s shown she’s the dutiful little wife, pandering to her husband almost as if he was a little child and she the mom urging him to get up. You can just tell that this is a daily routine and that she has to be the “mom” to her husband… and we get all this before we even see Darryl. By her dialogue and by her actions. All in about thirty seconds.
Darryl makes his appearance and Khouri defines his character also by his actions. First, by the way he’s dressed and the way he acts. Khouri gives him this appearance: Darryl comes trotting down the stairs. Polyester was made for this man and he’s dripping in “men’s” jewelry.
She further defines his character by his response to Thelma’s urging him to “hurry up.” He says, “Dammit, Thelma, don’t holler like that! Haven’t I told you I can’t stand it when you holler in the morning.”
Less than a minute has gone by in the story and we’ve already got a crystal-clear view of these two people and of their relationship. Thelma then replies (sweetly and coyly), “I’m sorry, doll, I just didn’t want you to be late.”
Next, Khouri provides the character of Darryl with a very revealing bit of action, when she writes: Darryl is checking himself out in the hall mirror and it’s obvious he likes what he sees. He exudes overconfidence for reasons that never become apparent…He is making imperceptible adjustments to his overmoussed hair. (Then, another action by Thelma that further defines her character. Italics mine.) Thelma watches approvingly.
In the briefest span of time, we see these two people for exactly who and what they are. All delivered via their actions (mostly) and a bit of dialogue.
Louise's character is defined even before Thelma's, in the very first scene. She's waiting tables and admonishes a group of teenaged girls for smoking, citing the well-worn chestnut that "smoking will stunt your growth." This action informs us of her character and role in the movie—that of the mother.
Immediately after she's chastised the girls, she goes into the kitchen for a break and has a cigarette herself. Not only does it define her mothering character, it shows us that she's an unreliable character. She preaches one thing but does another. Pretty much what a normal parent might do!
There are countless other examples of how Callie Khouri defines each and every character by their action—virtually everything the people in her story do defines their characters.
Some specific examples:
Guns to create character arc
Tools and how characters use them are very effective ways to create a character's growth. In Thelma and Louise, one of the most important actions Khouri uses to deliver Thelma’s character arc in the story is when the two women meet at Thelma’s house to begin their trip.
Thelma has elected to bring along a revolver and it’s the way she physically handles it that is a particularly brilliant piece of writing by Khouri. Thelma picks up the gun gingerly by the thumb and two fingers, obviously terrified of the weapon when she takes it out of the drawer to pack. That action is reinforced when, minutes later, she reveals to Louise she's brought the weapon and she again holds it as if she's afraid it will go off and shoot her when she follows Louise's order and puts it in the older woman's purse.
By the end of the story, she’s whipping the gun around like Doc Holliday’s been mentoring her out behind the O.K. Corral. This one simple action and the way it evolves during the story by itself beautifully shows the viewer how far Thelma’s come and how she’s emerged as a much different person as a result of what she’s undergone.
In the setup, both women pack for their camping trip to the mountains. There is a vast contrast to their packing "styles" which serves to further define their characters by that action.
Louise, the "mom" and adult, is in control. She wraps garments in individual plastic containers and arranges them neatly in her suitcase. Thelma, in contrast, throws handfuls of clothes into her suitcase and at one point, just dumps her drawers into her suitcase, as a child might. She's definitely not in control of her life, as evidenced by her chaotic packing method. It mirrors her existence, just as Louise's style does hers.
If you knew nothing about either woman, as soon as you saw each of them pack, you'd make the firm conclusion that one was in complete charge of herself and the other was more than a little "scattered." You wouldn't have to hear either of them speak or do anything else to figure this out.
Huh? you say. (I heard you.) How is hair a physical action?
Remember at the beginning, Khouri has established Louise as the "in-control" mother (adult) figure and Thelma as the scattered, undisciplined "child." Louise packs carefully; Thelma tosses her things willy-nilly into the suitcase. Louise smokes; Thelma chomps on a candy bar. Thelma is terrified of guns and Louise is an old hand at firearms. And so on.
Now, look at their hair when the trip begins. Louise's is neat and pinned up. Under firm control. Thelma's hangs loose and free. Hair is important in this movie. Not only does it reflect the individual character at the moment, it also reveals the state of the relationship between the two women at a given point in the plot.
As the story progresses, Louise's hair begins to come down at various plot points. As she inches closer and closer to her freedom from men, the hair comes down, little by little. I won't go into every single scene where hair plays a role, although it does in just about all of them—watch the movie and focus only on the hair and the times when it is up or down or in-between on each woman and you can quickly see how hair affects what's going on and the present state of their relationship with each other.
There is a point, two-thirds through the film, when the two women reverse their roles. Thelma becomes the mother, the one in control, and Louise reverts to being a helpless child.
Shortly after that, the two begin to move toward equality and their hair symbolically reflects that stage perfectly, in that both women are driving down the road and both have their hair partly "up" in the exact same "do." Not only that, but to further strengthen their new-found equality, they are both singing along in perfect harmony to a song on the radio. All actions.
I saw your eyes light up at this topic heading. Don't deny it. Just means you're normal.
Sex is powerful, isn't it? We pay attention when we encounter sex on the screen or among the pages of a novel.
Many writers write sizzling sex scenes that are definitely worth the price of admission. But... most of the time, those scenes don't do all that they could.
Khouri gets Prius mileage out of her big sex scene, the one where Thelma and J.R. (Brad Pitt) make love. As Janet Burroway tells us in her wonderful book, Writing Fiction, that character changes must always be occasioned by a physical event. Khouri uses this maxim brilliantly.
Up until the point when J.R. steals their money, Louise is in charge—the parent—and Thelma is the child. When they run to the motel room and find out J.R.'s stolen all their money, a role reversal takes place. Louise gives up and reverts to being the child—all hope is gone in her eyes. It is then that a miracle happens. Thelma becomes the parent in charge. It's Thelma's coming-of-age moment.
How can Thelma change this drastically? Remember, character change must be caused by something physical that happens to the character. Have you guessed what the physical action was that allowed Thelma to do a 180?
That's right. But... not just any old sex. After all, she's been married four years and dated her husband Darryl for the four years of high school before that and has had lots of sex. But, what J.R. and she had was a different kind of sex for her. It was adult, mature sex. Not the version of teenager backseat dalliances she engaged in with her husband. No, this was grownup sex between two adults who approached each other and had sex as equals. And, it was because of this that she transformed into an adult and was able to take charge.
Without this kind of sex, she would no doubt have stayed the child she was and would have most likely collapsed in surrender and defeat on the bed right along with Louise, as she'd already done in previous scenes in one way or another up to that moment.
This is the biggest turning point in the movie and Khouri does it up right.
Another action Khouri provides Thelma to establish her character and illustrate her character arc, is that at first Thelma buys liquor in “miniatures,” the same thing a young person might buy.
Later, when she has adult sex with Brad Pitt, one of the symbolic things that happen during their lovemaking is when they sweep the empty miniature bottles onto the floor. Then, when she robs the convenience store, she takes the “adult” or regular size liquor bottle. Just another action to show how she’s progressed in her character arc.
There are other actions in this fine film that the screenwriter Khouri employs, but these should give you a very good idea of not only how to use such actions to inform your character and his or her developmental arc, but how vital providing them is.
Now. Go out and figure out your own actions to give your characters. Your stories will resonate as they never have before.
How might we use these techniques for our fiction? Throw out examples in the comments! WITS is giving away an e-copy of Les' latest book to one commenter. (See below.)
* * * * * *
Les' latest book: The Genuine, Imitation, Plastic Kidnapping
A mix of Cajun gumbo, a couple tablespoons of kinky sex and a dash of unusual New Orleans settings and you wind up with Les Edgerton’s latest romp fest!
Pete Halliday is busted out of baseball for gambling and travels to New Orleans to make his fortune hustling. Five years later, he’s deep in debt to bookie and in cahoots with Tommy LeClerc, a Cajun with a tiny bit of Indian blood who considers himself a red man.
Tommy inveigles a reluctant Pete into one scheme after another, the latest a kidnapping scheme where they’ll snatch the Cajun Mafia King and hold his amputated hand for some serious jack.
Along the way, Pete is double-crossed by Tommy and falls in love with part-time hooker and full-time waitress Cat Duplaisir. With both the Italian and Cajun mobs after them, a chase through Jazz Fest, a Tourette’s outbreak in a black bar and other zany adventures, all seems lost.
Fans of Tim Dorsey’s character Serge Storms, and readers who enjoy Christopher Moore and Carl Hiaasen will enjoy this story.
Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved
Great article it really shows how we should be looking at writing our characters lives.
Thanks, Rosie! And Les has stopped in and is ready for questions. 🙂
Freaking brilliant post! And thank God I didn't meet you when I was young, Les. You were just my kinda bad boy.
I'm embarrassed to admit I've never seen the movie (hey, I'd rather read), but I'm glad I read this, because I'm going to make a point to watch it now, and will keep an eye out for all this.
AND I'm going make in my WIP today, and figure out how to weave this in - it's almost subliminal to the reader - but SO powerful!
Thanks so much for blogging with us!
Laura, get out! I thought I was the only one who had never seen this movie, even though it is talked about in writing guides all the time. Les, great to see you here, and I loved all the points you made about this movie. We sedentary writers have to remember that action is important in our novels, and that it can build character with great concision.
I am completely shocked that so few people saw this movie! I was taking a Soviet cinema class in college at the time it came out and we picked this movie apart. Love it. But after reading Les' post, I'm going to watch it again. 🙂
I'm blown away by this post. Love the hair example. My main character decides to grow his hair out, in disrespect. Before he shaved it twice a day. He's tired of being proper.I never thought about the character change has/should follow an action but it makes sense. Inadvertenly I've done that. Now I'll be deliberate.
Don't you love it when you instinctively do the right thing? That's awesome, Angie.
Fantastic article and no I haven't seen the movie or, as I'd say here in the UK, the film!
Fabulous, Les. I appreciate the detailed way you took the movie apart to make the points. I've looked at TV shows and movies for pacing; you've added many rich layers to the viewing experience. I've seen Thelma & Louise a number of times; now I'll see it again with new eyes. Thanks.
I can't wait to watch the movie again, Carol, after reading this post.
I've seen this film at least twenty times and more I'll watch It again. There's another quick moment to notice, too. Pay attention to the moment J.R. and Darryl are in a scene together.
One of the best posts I've read. Great example with the movie. Thanks for helping me refocus.
Awesome article about fictional technique and characterization. Shared everywhere!
Thanks so much, Linda! Les is amazing - I had so much fun putting this post up. 🙂
Hi folks--sorry I'm on here a bit late, but I mistakenly thought it was going up tonight! Please excuse me for a bit--I have a phonecon with a producer who I'm working with for my screenplay for my novel THE GENUINE, IMITATION, PLASTIC KIDNAPPING and I'll be talking with him on a strategy session from 12:30-1:30 EST. Be back right after that, okay?
Uh, yeah - anytime ANYONE has a discussion about making their book into a movie, we'll wait! 😉
Now I have to go back and watch the movie again.
Hey, Butch! How'ya doin'? Great post. Cheers!
Les, I've been working on your excellent points since I saw you at Oklahoma Writers Federation in May. Great stuff! I'd never seen the movie either, so had to buy it so I could study it in greater depth. Loved your book "Hooked" also.
I'm baaaaaccck! It's great to see all these comments as well as reconnect with some friends! Open to any questions y'all might have!
I have a question. I have a fight scene that's been giving me loads of trouble, seeing as how I'm not big on the physical altercation front. It's toward the beginning of my book and I'm using it to show more about the setting the heroine finds herself in, and to bring out the skills of my Army nurse/soon-to-be-ex nun.
I have her crossing herself when the gun-man curses, but that's so cliche. Are there any great physical descriptives/body language hints you can think of for a fight?
How about a bit of dialog? Something like: "Hey, man, I can' wait to mix it up with you, but I need to refresh my makeup. Why don't you go outside and while you're waiting for me, practice falling down." (I'll keep thinking of some physical action she might take, okay?)
Yes, and keep in mind, my nun is totally unaware of herself as a woman. She learns about dress and makeup in the course of the book. She's all about helping and making a difference. Oh, and she's a bit stubborn and judgemental, and she's fresh back from some Middle East war zones.
Jenny, it's a bit hard to create a physical action your character can take without knowing a lot more about her and her situation and things like that. By "fight" it looks as if you mean "gunfight" right? Actions such as in T&L are used to show both their character and also how their character changes. If you're going to give her another fight at later point, you could give her an action here that will show her naivete in fighting and later on, show her making the same action that will show a marked increase in the skill of the same action. Here's an example:
For instance, you may want to write a story about a man who has terminal cancer and your story is about the stages such a person might go through in coming to terms with his fate.
Let's say that right after "Charley" learns of his impending doom, he goes through a period of utter hopelessness. From that he segues into a kind of hysterical hedonism, where he does everything he's always wanted to do, but was too conservative to do while healthy. From that you may have him moving on to a period in which he takes huge risks with his life. Maybe you have him buy a motorcycle—something he's always wanted but didn't for a couple of reasons. One, he was simply afraid of motorcycles, and two, he didn't feel the family's budget could accommodate one. Now that he's only got months to live, he races out and plunks down a check for a new Harley Sportster. His wife is beside herself. He tears through town at breakneck speed, at little or no concern for his safety. She's really worried because he refuses to buy a helmet. She even goes out and buys him one for his birthday present, but he never puts it on.
And then, something happens. He has an epiphany. (What the epiphany is and how he gets it is your job—you didn't think I was going to write the whole darned thing, did you?) Something happens that somehow gives him hope and makes him come back to earth and realize that even though he's terminal, he's still responsible for his family and that if he were to get in a wreck and survive, the hospital bills might just finish off what little savings they have left. He also gains a small ray of hope that the doctors may be wrong—that he may somehow beat the death sentence.
To show his realization by a physical act, you can have him go to the garage where he's discarded his wife's present and strap on the helmet. He's really grown here, by this kind of action. He didn't revert to where he was before—he's still going to ride his cycle and he isn't overly afraid to do so—but he's going to do it responsibly now.
See how this physical action stuff works? It's kind of cool, isn't it!
So if I hear you right, her inner feeling of being completely overwhelmed should show here. Toward the end of the book, when she has a (very overdue) verbal fight with another main character, I could show her being much more confident and controlled. It's her demeanor and thought patterns that change so drastically in this book.
Jenny, going by your earlier description, it sounds as if your character's going to be in a gunfight. If so, how about this? She draws a gun on the gunman and fumbles it, ending up dropping it. This defuses the fight as her foe collapses in laughter. However, since her later fight isn't a physical fight or a gunfight, you can't use this same action and tool. If it were another gunfight, you could show her spinning the gun on her finger like Annie Oakley. The problem here is the two fights are dissimilar so it would be tough to come up with an action that could be used in each.
She faces a gunman here and talks him down. But you have given me serious food for thought with your answer. This is awesome stuff.
She does a lot of changing of her look in this book as she learns to live life as a civilian rather than a nun. I'll spend some extra time on those descriptions to get the most mileage, while this post is fresh on my mind.
Just had a thought, Jenny. What if, in her confrontation with the gunman, she clutches the cross that hangs around her neck? Then, things go south. Then, at the end, when she faces the verbal confrontation, she clutches the cross again... only this time, contemptuously throws it over her shoulder and then engages with the guy... successfully.
Nice body language! I think it's more to her character for her to defiantly tuck it under her shirt, but it's a grand idea. I hadn't thought of using a cross around her neck, but I could believably get tons of mileage out of it.
Just what I need at this point in my wip. Now I have to go back and make sure she shows her change. Maybe write a short parallel plan for a couple of facets - as you did in the article. Thank you for sharing this insight.
Ooh, perfect timing and a perfect reminder! I am in the midst of going through a manuscript after a total rewrite and that's what I'm working on. Description and inner dialogue. Close third person. Just by reading this post you've given me an idea for a physical dilemma for my MC. Actually, I had one, but failed to carry it through. Although I have symbolism sprinkled throughout. And Jenny, that's why I'm prone to agree with Les' idea for your nun. I like it!
"What if, in her confrontation with the gunman, she clutches the cross that hangs around her neck? Then, things go south. Then, at the end, when she faces the verbal confrontation, she clutches the cross again… only this time, contemptuously throws it over her shoulder and then engages with the guy… successfully."
This is awesome symbolism. You should go for it Jenny! And then I want to read your "Nun" story!
And thank you Les. 🙂
I like these actions; I'm really tired of heads whipping around, lifted and rolled eyes, shrugged shoulders or clenched fists to "show" personality and tension. I like to see characters move, and emote, and mostly interact with the setting to show personalities. And changes. Reactions should change as the story progresses; like with Thelma and the gun handling.
With my characters, I spend a lot of time thinking about what actions and dialogue will reveal about the character that is more vivid than internal monologues or description of the character. It is hard to write what is seen in the minds eye. I think that is why most people prefer movies, you get visuals of what is going on.
Thanks for the examples Les. I may have to watch this movie again with these characterizations in mind.
Les, to validate your recommendation we should look to the best selling book in non-fiction world: the Bible. The actions of the individuals establish their character! For example, the Lord demonstrated his love for the Israelites by taking them out of the slavery in Egypt. There is no narrator stating that He did this out of love yet we see His character by the phenomenal way that the exodus happened. So it is throughout the Bible - their actions define their character.
And the result? The Bible is by far the best selling title of all time.
Les, thanks for your insight,
Thomas B. Clarke, author
Thomas, I agree with you wholeheartedly. Check out an interview I did that's on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PoihFwCJKYw&feature=youtu.be In it, I think you'll see what I think of the Bible for writers.
Fabulous post, Les. Thanks for the great reminder. Action = character. Yes yes and yes!
Now I'll definitely have to go back and look at hair in the movie. I've seen it (not 200 times!) but didn't pay that close attention to the details. Now I'll study it for sure.
Do you have a suggestion for a novel that does the same kind of thing? I mean, I'm sure there are many novels that do, but what would be your pick to study?
Thanks for the timely reminder, Les. Action scenes are my favorite to write. Now there will be more actions (however subtle) elsewhere.
Kelly, one book that uses tools and actions brilliantly, imo, is NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Two tools and actions that McCarthy uses really well are the coin toss and the stungun. If interested, I talk about both in an interview I did with Richard Godwin on his blog, Chin Wag at the Slaughterhouse. It's at http://www.richardgodwin.net/author-interviews-extensive/chin-wag-at-the-slaughterhouse-interview-with-les-edgerton#comments
Warning: It's really long! But, it may be useful to look at.
Wow - great interview, Les. I'm going to have to go back and read it more thoroughly in a bit, but thank you for sharing it.
Oh, I LOVE that interview. And it's interesting to think about the mind of a criminal. Writers love control too. It's interesting to think of the parallels.
I reread your interview, Les, and I have a few short questions I'm hoping you'll be able to clear up. Btw - I learned a whole lot there (I'm moving to a table next time somebody keeps their empty beer bottle close), so thanks for that.
Also, "rendered room temperature" is now my favorite phrase even though I don't write crime or about death in general. Maybe I'll start just to use that. I hope you don't mind if I poach it sometime.
You say that gaining control is the driving force of the criminal mind. I don't read a lot of crime or noir (sorry!! I loved 'Hooked') but that sounds right to me. Makes sense.
1. Chigurh is meant to represent 'fate' in No Country, yes? That's kind of how I see it. That's his philosophy, right? He's doing what needs to be done, without making choices about it - it's what was meant to happen - until the second coin toss, yes?
2. So if he's fate incarnate, and he tells the guy at the gas station to pick a side of the coin - isn't he giving that control away? He's leaving it up to the guy to save his own life, which he does. Lucky bastard.
I see how the coin toss represents him, his philosophy. It works brilliantly. I'm just confused about the control issue in it all. He's, of course, technically still in control in the whole scene (which is what makes it so freakin' terrifying) because he could just choose to blow the guy away, but he won't make that choice because it's not part of his belief system, right?
Am I totally off on that? I haven't studied it, so these are my first impressions. Just need a little clarifying. Thank you!
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go insert a piece of ice into my heart.
Good questions, Kelly! While no one except for Cormac McCarthy knows what he intended Chigurh's role to represent, my take on him is that he's the avenging angel of God and that it's a God of Calvinistic leanings. Meaning that the concepts of predestination and free choice are present. While the person is presented a free choice--heads or tails--since it's God, or at least his emissary--he already knows the choice he'll make. That choice represents salvation or the rejection of it. This is a tough concept for many to follow or accept, but I think it's what McCarthy intended, and not to provide proof of it, but to furnish an example that will force the reader to think.
As far as control, this is my own (firm) belief in what's behind most criminal behaviors. I don't believe in heredity except occasionally, but do believe in environment, but not in the way most sociologists do. If it were simply a matter of poverty or whatever, the percentages would be much higher than they are as to who becomes a criminal. What I believe is behind criminal behaviors is that the person feels a lack of control in a certain area and that perception of a lack of control can be traced to a particular incident or series of incidents that convinced him or her that they were powerless in that area. That would explain why members of the same family take different paths. One brother becomes a rapist because he experienced something that convinced him he was powerless in a sexual situation. This is his way of recovering control--at least temporarily--of his sexual life. Being temporary also means he'll have to increase that behavior to regain control and keep escalating it as each incident lasts less and less time. Won't go into my entire philosophy of this, but will say that I address this in one of my novels, which Cathy Johns, the asst. warden of The Farm (prison at Angola, LA) read and said described the criminal mindset better than anything else she'd ever read.
Hope this helps answer your (great!) questions!
Thanks so much for taking the time to explain that, Les. Yes, it totally makes sense now.
And your explanation of control is what I believe too. It's a human condition, regardless of socioeconomonic status I think. That incident or series of incidents that took control away from someone so they spend their days trying to get it back in whatever way they can. Some become criminals. Some become Oprah.
Thanks so much, Les, for this article, for linking to your brilliant interview, and taking the time to so thoroughly answer my questions. I've bookmarked both of these so they're handy for rereading. 🙂
Ooooh, that's a great explanation. We really appreciate you taking so much time with our readers, Les. This is awesome!
Jenny, this was a totally pleasant experience. Your readers are simply great--I thank each and every one of them for making my visit here a gas!
I love this post. Among other things, it clarifies that what I've seen and puzzled over in the supposedly overworked, nothing-new-to-see-here Iliad and related plays is true: Achilles was not a noble, glorious, honorable warrior. When you look at what he did rather than what others said about him and writers wrote about him, he was actually a narcissistic psychopath. What fun it is to finally show him as he really was!
I never liked Achilles much either - GO YOU for the comparison, and for making me laugh on this fine Tuesday.
Thank you Les.
I loved your explanation of action in Thelma & Louise. I remembered that scene clearly, of them driving with the same hair styles, half up half down, smiling and having fun. But I saw it then just as a girly thing, sharing the experience.
Now I really get it. My MS edit in progress won't know itself after this.
Cheers from downunder,
It's like having the blinders taken off your eyes! Thanks so much for the blog and glad you have mended yours ways. Well, maybe you have.
I am working on my second book, (first novel) and this will be invaluable. By the way, I have seen the movie several times and never realized the brilliance of it. I just thought it was a terrific movie.
I actually reenacted it a bit years ago with a girl friend, while driving through the California agricultural station, radio blasting without stopping, while they were trying to wave us down.
Great article. Loved the subtleties, most of which I missed in watching the film. It made me aware of the importance of subliminals in writing fiction. I've only seen the film once, but I'm watching it again. And I'll read this article again. I love reading relevant advice on writing, and I thank you, Les, for that.
I read HOOKED years ago, so I'm really happy to see a post here at WITS from Les. And my goodness, hands down one of the best posts I've read -- possibly because it's exactly what I needed as I revise. Thank you SO MUCH for this.
This post is fantastic. Great work, Les. I look forward to reading more from you! (I also look forward to rewatching "Thelma and Louise" for the thousandth time with a more critical eye.)
[…] “The writer who can master the art and craft of defining their characters by their actions is going to be the author whose work gets read.”—Les Edgerton at Writers In The Storm […]
[…] week over at Writers In the Storm last week. We had an eye-opening post from Les Edgerton on defining characters through action and an amazing post from Gwen Hernandez on the Top 10 Scrivener Features for Writers. Both these […]
Great post, Les. It's been years since I've seen the movie. Time for another peek.
[…] Check out Les’s article How Actions Determine Character and Arc at the link below or click HERE. […]