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, Boyhood, you 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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