Learn to Write Dynamic Characters Like Christopher Nolan

You know what they say, “If your character can be himself, he should always be himself. Otherwise, he should be Batman.” But, seriously, tongue-in-check aside, if you want to writing amazing, dynamic characters, there’s actually one very important lesson you need to learn from the Dark Knight.

In the 2005 blockbuster hit Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) returns to Gotham City, ostensibly as an irresponsible playboy loser and secretly as the unorthodox crime fighter known to the press and the public as Batman. There, he re-encounters his old flame Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes). Rachel, who’s not yet in the know about Bruce’s alter ego, is unimpressed with his apparent apathy and superficiality.

He attempts a cryptic explanation, which doesn’t go over too well: “Inside, I am more.”

And Rachel responds, “It’s not who you are underneath. It’s what you do that defines you.”

It’s What Your Characters Do That Defines Them

What rings true for Batman also rings true for fictional characters everywhere. If we expect readers to take our characters seriously, if expect them to be impressed by our characters, if we expect them to remember our characters long after the back cover has been closed—we can’t rely on the characters’ good intentions or impressive speeches. Just like Bruce Wayne, it’s what your characters do that proves them worth defining.

Why Your Characters’ Intentions Aren’t Good Enough

As writers, it’s often very easy for us to talk on and on about our characters’ intentions. If we’re not careful, we often let our characters’ mouths run away with them, as they spend chapter upon chapter sitting around discussing and planning their next move.

But guess what? Most readers don’t care about what your characters are planning to do. They only care when they actually do it.

This is so for a couple of reasons.

Reason #1

This is easily the most obvious, since it doesn’t take a trigonometry professor to figure out that watching soldiers fighting in a battle is far more interesting than watching the politicians sit around in a boardroom discussing the battle. Action is always more attention grabbing than inaction.

This isn’t to say scenes in the boardroom or periods of inaction are unacceptable—only that they need to be recognized for what they are and appropriately rationed.

Reason #2

The second reason is probably even more important. When we show our characters in action, we move beyond simply telling our readers who these people are (“Joe was a nice guy”), to the much more powerful plane of exhibiting the characters’ actions and allowing readers to draw their own conclusions (“Joe emptied his wallet into the hand of the beggar on the corner”).

Readers Want Your Characters to Prove Who They Are

Readers find it affirming when what they’ve been told about a character is proven by that character’s actions. When we give our hero the opportunity to exhibit his bravery (or his cowardice), his empathy (or his selfishness), his brilliance (or his stupidity), we are doing more than just imparting the facts. We’re bringing this character to life on the page. We’re making him a living, breathing personality, who acts and reacts in a palpable way, just the same as the rest of us.

Seek out opportunities to let your character define himself by his actions. Don’t let him stand around for pages, doing little more than talking or thinking. Shove him into the mayhem of life and force him to get his hands dirty. Create situations and scenes that will prove his strengths and his weaknesses, instead of forcing readers to simply take your word for it. If you do, you’ll emerge with characters—and a story—that’s vibrant, visible, and memorable.

Who knew you could learn so much from the movies?

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How are your characters proving who they are in your work-in-progress?


Learn to Write Dynamic Characters Like Christopher Nolan

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Good tip! Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are two stellar character-driven action films.

    http://www.reelartsy.com

  2. Yep, I’m a big fan of the series!

  3. mmmm movies C:

    ps: rachel dawes had no development other than the actresses that played her xD

  4. Hmmm… I think this is the first time I’ve read a writing post and it actually corresponded with what was in the sermon at church on a given Sunday… ‘it’s not the intentions that matter, it’s the actions’ is virtually straight out of my pastor’s sermon today! 😀

    In other words, I think you’ve got it spot on with this topic.

  5. One of the greatest joys I’ve had in starting to write is the point where you’re writing along, and your characters suddenly talk back to you (the author), because you’ve forced them into a situation they don’t agree with, due to an action you had someone perform.

    I was writing an important part of the book I’m (slowly) working on, where my main character was supposed to be convinced a group of people he gets caught up with are not a cult- the idea being their leader would “prove” to him their cause was just.

    What happened was my character argued with them (with me) for a full chapter because their actions kept proving them to BE a cult (in his eyes). I even got to a point where I had the leader tell him to stay overnight (in other words… don’t go, I need more time to convince you!) The entire time, every part of that chapter I wrote where the characters tried to convince him, he replied to them (to me) with: “Yep, you ARE a cult.”

    I laugh thinking about this… it shows you how powerful the actions are that all of the characters perform, but also how your characters will point out to you, the writer, when you’re doing something quite wrong. =)

    Dialogue is important for the details, but action is king.

  6. @Brigitte: I wasn’t too impressed with her character either, esp. after she did a completely nonsensical 180 at the end of the first movie.

    @Liberty: Since I don’t believe in coincidences, I’ll just take that as a very cool compliment!

    @Jaym: It’s *amazing* when characters take over. I’m currently in the middle of “interviewing” one of my main characters for my next story, and I’m so loving that he’s not only talking to me, but that he’s showing me, in no uncertain terms, what the actions are that define him. Makes my job as a writer so much easier!

  7. Amen, sister! Actions totally speak louder than words. This very much re-enforces what I was saying in my Carpe Diem article:

    http://bit.ly/28g5e2

    I did want to add a comment about this, though:

    > This isn’t to say that scenes in the boardroom or periods of inaction are unacceptable—only that they need to be recognized for what they are and appropriately rationed.

    Boardroom scenes (or any other dialogue-oriented scenes) can work very well, so long as they’ve got one thing:

    Conflict.

    If people are disagreeing (the more vehemently, the better), then you can certainly craft a very compelling scene out of that. Conflict is inherently dramatic, and conflicts of ideas (which are what the arguments are all ultimately about) can be especially dramatic because they speak to the deepest beliefs and desires of the characters involved.

    Also, I think it is a misnomer to say that a dialogue scene is one in which the characters aren’t _doing_ anything. They can be doing some seriously dramatic things just by talking. They can be taking risks. Putting their careers on the line. Arguing for their lives or their loves. They can be feinting and bluffing, daring risky strategies and then trying to quickly backtrack when those strategies blow up in their faces.

    Sure, maybe nobody moves from their chairs during the whole exchange, and maybe the most physical thing that happens is somebody taps a pencil nervously on the table top. But to say that there’s no _action_, well, that’s to miss the whole boat about _psychological_ action.

    I know you weren’t suggesting that as such, I just had to add my two cents in defense of the well-written argument! 🙂

  8. Of course, I agree with you. Conflict is the necessary ingredient in every scene, although the intensity level can, and should, vary.

    Dialogue is every whit as important as a character’s actions. However, I do think that, in most cases, actions provide more dramatic and definitive proof of a character’s personality – both when it backs up the dialogue and, perhaps sometimes even more so, when it *doesn’t*.

  9. I believe internal thought, dialogue and action work together to develop a character. It’s difficult for me to stress one over another, but I believe balancing the three is crucial.

    I’ve spent the past four sessions teaching about characterization and we’re not done yet! I’m going to print a copy of this for the next session.

  10. It’s definitely a balancing act, though when someone writes dialogue as well as you do, it shoots to the top of the list!

  11. Good post! I’m not much of a fan of Batman, =), but I like your point about defining characters by what they do; instead of by just what they think, feel, or say. Like the old saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” It’s true even for fictional characters.

  12. Very often what’s true of us ordinary humans is also true of our characters!

  13. I agree with Bruce Wayne that it is what you do that defines you. It might take a lot of pages to develop these inner qualities. I have always found the process interesting as well as the action,but there is little hope if the character never acts.

  14. There’s a lot to be said for building to the crescendo of your character’s action. Action isn’t something that has to happen every single moment

  15. I’m glad you wrote a post about that line from Batman, “It’s not who you are that defines you, it’s what you do.” So true with your characters, and with that said we could also learn a thing or two from it ourselves.

  16. There’s often a fine line between ourselves and our characters… what rings true to them often rings true to us.

  17. Steve Mathisen says

    Excellent points that are well worth our attention.

  18. thomas h cullen says

    He’s been to the Reference Centre, already, to collect his status. He mightn’t have yet confronted his Primal Governor, or, actually yet spoke to the Earth Representative, but, this is at least something that Croyan’s done to prove himself..

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yep, it’s good to realize that characters don’t have to start *out* proving themselves. They just have to show the potential for it.

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