Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The First-Rate Characters of Secondhand Lions

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?


Beth K. Vogt said...

Great question, Julia: Have movie characters helped you in the creation of your own characters?
Attending Susie May Warren's writing retreats taught me to look at movies, analyze them, and plug what I learned back into my stories. And now the Alley Cats are reminding me of the lesson: Take note of what movie directors do (and the writers do)--and learn from it. A good movie is good for a reason--and it usually has something to do with how well the characters are developed.

Linda Yezak said...

Uncle Garth's "softer" side wasn't all that soft, but he did the best he could, didn't he?

Loved the movie, loved the post, and love Beth Vogt for directing me here from Twitter!


Julia M. Reffner said...

Thanks, Beth (and thanks for the tweet, too). I would love to go to a Susan May Warren retreat! She's a great storyteller. A few months back I went to a conference with Debra Dixon who wrote Goal Motivation Conflict and have taken a whole new view of the movies.

Linda, You're right. Uncle Garth isn't all that "soft" but I still think he's my favorite character. Boy those men sure can act! Thanks for stopping by, Linda!

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Julia, I've never seen this movie, but it sounds like a good one. I'm still learning to analyze movie characters and learn how to develop them in my writing. It's been fun to watch some romantic comedies and see how the heroines' characters grow and change (my latest two are While You Were Sleeping and Letters to Juliet). I'm learning how to identify how some growth is developed subtlely.
And Beth is right, Susan May Warren's conferences are amazing. I've learned tons from her. :)
Thanks for your post today. I think this is another movie I'm going to have to rent. :)

Julia M. Reffner said...


I can definitely recommend it. I've never seen Letters to Juliet...its interesting to watch different genres and see how the conflict develops. Thanks for stopping in.

Pepper said...

Oh my goodnes, Julia!
When do movie characters NOT help me with my writing?!?

Two nights ago I rewatched Knight & Day because Tom Cruise's character in it has inspired my own character in a contemp action-suspense-romance...gee, I don't know what to call it.
Anyhow, the character is polite, complimentary, and very sweet...while he's killing people and getting ready to drug Cameron Diaz. It's really funny - or at least I thought so. He's NOT what we expect from a CIA agent AT ALL. A Boyscout in a CIA/James Bond job. Love it - and perfect inspiration.

Julia M. Reffner said...

Ooohhh...Pepper. This almost entices me. Except I can't stand Tom Cruise...I might have to hurl something at the television and my husband would not be a happy camper at losing his flatscreen.

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Oh, I love this movie! Those crusty old men...they are awesome characters. My heart always went out to that little boy.

I love romantic movies and have to say that sometimes I can daydream extended scenes! It is a great way to get the creativity flowing.

Great post!!!

Pepper said...

Not particularly a Tom Cruise fan either, but his character was loads of fun :)

Julia M. Reffner said...

I know, Sherrinda. Don't you just want to give that mom a knock upside the head?...I'm not violent in real life...honest....