character

Character, Action, and Dialogue

Creating an interesting character is my favorite part of writing. Writers like to obsess over dialogue, while important to fleshing out a character, is like judging a person solely on their shoes.

Action informs the character more so than the things he says, in my estimation. Words can deceive or have double meanings, but a choice is honest. You can say that you love your wife, but when the ship sinks and dive after your mother, leaving her to drown, we know where you allegiances really lie.

In the film, American Psycho, Patrick Bateman says all the right things, but he brutally murders people (or at least fantasies about doing it). Which reveals more about him, his words or actions?

JEAN 
Thanks, Patrick. I'd love some.

Bateman walks in with a bottle of wine and a corkscrew in 
his hand and hands her the sorbet.

Jean is eating the sorbet.

JEAN 
Want a bite?

BATEMAN 
I'm on a diet. But thank you.

JEAN 
You don't need to lose any weight. You're kidding, right? 
You look great. Very fit.

BATEMAN 
(Weighing the corkscrew examining the point for sharpness) 
You can always he thinner. Look...better.

In the critically acclaimed film, Boyhoodyou get the impression that dialogue is supposed to serve the purpose of action.

INT. BOWLING ALLEY CAFE - EVENING

The family sits around a table enjoying their snacks, while
Dad smokes a cigarette.

                      DAD (O.S.)
          Alright, let me tell you what's
          happening in Iraq, alright? Exactly
          what every thinking person in the
          world knew was gonna happen before
          they got started. Bush and his little
          numb-nut fanatics he's got around
          him, they don't give a rat's ass.

                      SAMANTHA
          That's a quarter.

                      DAD
          What's a quarter?

                      SAMANTHA
          You said a-s-s.

                       DAD
          Oh, sorry.   My bad.

                      SAMANTHA
          And my teacher says it's a good war,
          because it's better to be safe than
          sorry.

                      DAD
          That's what they're teaching you in
          school? Alright, listen to me.
          Listen to your father, okay? That
          is the lie. That's the big lie.
          Iraq had nothing to do with what
          happened at the World Trade Center.
          You know that, right?

                       SAMANTHA
          I guess.
                                        23.

            DAD
Alright. Who are you gonna vote for
next fall, MJ?

            MASON
I don't know.

            SAMANTHA
He can't vote. He's not eighteen.

            DAD
Yeah, oh -- alright, who would you
vote for?

            MASON
Kerry?

            DAD
Anybody but Bush!   Okay?

            SAMANTHA
Are you gonna move back?

            DAD
Uh... I'm plannin' on it.   You know,
I gotta find a job.

            MASON
Are you and mom gonna get back
together?

            DAD
I don't know. That's not, uh...
entirely up to me, you know?

            SAMANTHA
I remember when I was six, you and
mom were fighting like mad. You
were yelling so loud and she was
crying.

            DAD
That's what you remember, huh?

            SAMANTHA
Yep.

            DAD
You don't remember the trips to
Galveston, camping in Big Bend, all
the fun we had?

            SAMANTHA
Nope.
                                                    24.

                      DAD
          You ever get mad at your mother?

                        SAMANTHA
          Yeah.

                      DAD (O.S.)
          You ever get mad at your brother?

                        SAMANTHA
          Yeah.

                        DAD
          Yeah.    You ever yell at him?

                        SAMANTHA
          Oh yeah.

                      DAD
          Yeah. Doesn't mean you don't love
          him, right?

                        SAMANTHA
          Mmm...

                      DAD
          Look, the same thing happens when
          you're grown up, alright? You...
          You know, you get mad at people.
          You know, it's not a big deal.

                      MASON
          What'd you do in Alaska?

                      DAD
          I worked on a boat for a while.     Um,
          I tried to write some music.

                      MASON
          Did you see any polar bears?

                      DAD (O.S.)
          No, but I saw a Kodiak bear.     It was
          fuckin' huge.

                     SAMAMTHA (O.S.)
          Dad! That's fifty cents for the F-
          word!

Dad reaches into his wallet.

                     DAD
          I'm sorry. Here, take a dollar,
          alright? Keep the change.
                     (MORE)
                                                          25.

                       DAD (CONT'D)
           You guys are gonna be seein' a lot
           more of me. Okay? I missed you two
           real bad, while I was gone. Okay, I
           want you to know that. I just needed
           to take some time. You know, to...
           Just... Your mom and me, okay...
           Well, your mother, okay, is a piece
           of work. Alright, I think, I think
           you know that by now. Alright? And
           I'm just, I'm so happy to be with the
           two of you. Okay. And I'm sorry
           about that bumper business. Alright.
           I'm gonna get better at stuff like
           that, okay?

As a token of reconciliation, Dad high fives them both,
smiling.

In a fragment from American Psycho, you learn more than an entire scene from Boyhood. Why?

Boyhood is full of noise, but it doesn’t really tell us anything. You should be able to flip to random page and understand the point of the piece. Is this movie about Dad? Samantha? Our protagonist (Mason) is so passive that it could be easy to forget about him all together.

Consider action more than empty dialogue next time you write something. Sometimes silence (or even just less words) really is golden.

_

Thanks for reading! I hope it was helpful.

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