What does it take to create the kind of characters readers will remember long after they put your book down? Pop some popcorn, put on those fuzzy bunny slippers, grab a cup of tea...we're headed to the movies once again.
When it comes to quirky, three-dimensional characters Secondhand Lions is one of my favorite flicks.
Dialogue speaks volumes about our characters and this movie provides some excellent examples. Meet Mae. In the unbearable Texas heat, Mae drops off her son with his great uncles. Uncle Hub and Uncle Garth are sought after by relatives and salespeople alike who are anxious to stake claim on their fortune...and Mae is no exception. As she drops off her son for the summer, she asks him to look for the "buried treasure."
Her parting lines to Walter include:
"You're gonna have to work on that smile while I'm gone, OK?"
Mae isn't exactly lovable. She talks down to her son. Lies to him repeatedly throughout the movie. She is more concerned about getting and keeping her latest boyfriend, no matter how he treats her or Walter. Not only do we immediately dislike Mae, we don't respect her either.
Walter is the protagonist. We see him in the beginning as an adult, creating a popular comic strip. He takes a phone call and suddenly the viewer finds herself riding in the backseat as Mae drives Walter to an old rickety house and two strange uncles who will change Walter's life.
Walter is the "sadder but wiser" character, even in his eleventh year.
"I'm an only child mom, I know what uncles are." Walter is a shy but witty child.
Meet the uncles. Great Uncle Hub and Great Uncle Garth live in a worn-down old farmhouse in Texas. Two eccentric brothers who live alone. Instead of following the stereotype of old men seated by the television set with a cold drink...they spend their days on the porch "sporting" by shooting at traveling salesmen.
Uncle Hub and Uncle Garth quickly introduce themselves in this bedtime interchange.
Hub: Hey kid, you sleep up there in the tower.
Garth: Hey, we don't know nothing about kids. So if you need something--
Hub: Find it yourself...or better yet learn to do without.
Garth: We're both getting old.
Hub: Fixing to die anytime. So if we kick off in the middle of the night, you're on your own.
So Walter's first impression of the gruff, rich uncles is less than stellar.
A dusty house with strange relatives. No wonder Walter has trouble sleeping...and comes across Uncle Hub sword fighting an imaginary opponent in the backyard...with a plunger.
Suddenly Uncle Hub takes on a whole new dimension.
When a distraught Walter runs away to the gas station to call his mother...he finds out she has once again lied to him. He has no idea where his mom is.
Uncle Garth shows his softer side when the brothers find Walter.
"He sure annoys the relatives. If you stay for a while, our relatives are going to hate it..."
He gives Walter a motive to return with them and convinces Walter he's helping Garth and Hub in the process.
Uncle Garth and Uncle Hub are anything but one-dimensional.
Uncle Garth's stories bring a sense of adventure and courage which Walter carries with him into adulthood. He is a mentor or guide, perhaps he is the reason Walter wrote comic strips in his later years.
These stories also allow Walter to dream of a more exciting reality in the midst of his harsh childhood. Stories also provide a way of understanding what it means to be a hero...and what it means to step up to the call of manhood.
There are many scenes where "mystery" is kept, the uncles are cranky...yet wise and loving.
Secondhand Lions is a movie I will return to again and again...a great model of how to create first-rate characters in our own novels.
Have movie characters "helped" you in the creation of your own characters?