Writing Reality: True Grit

31/07/2013 at 23:07 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , )

In general, I am ignored for my moderate appearance. I live in jeans and t-shirts, hiking boots and converse. They say shoes are a good indication of character, and my feet have walked as many miles as my soul. I never know where I’ll be racing off to next, so the footwear might as well be ready.

Don’t get me wrong, I wholly advocate anyone who’ll take the time to make of themselves an individual portrait, an expression of Self.

Recently, an acquaintance at the gym – taken aback (like others) by my eclectic tastes – told me I seem to lack clarity. I hide my true colours. They weren’t being unkind. They were merely confused as to how a young woman can enjoy collecting swords, ballet, weight-training, and anything fighter jet-related, while also being a writer.

Oh, I did laugh.

I prefer to find myself in my own head. What others perceive outwardly is only the trunk and leaves, and if they’ve the guts to dig down far enough then they’ll find the roots. My ardent hatred of pigeonholing would never conceive of adopting any one image that tied me to a responsibility. Especially if it meant standing in front of a mirror for hours on end, twisting my multi-coloured hair into spikes again. Had enough of that in my early 20’s, ta.

So as a form of kick-back when writing, I am constantly on the hunt for innovative ways of layering up characters without resorting to cliches. I want to find the essence of a person, their cause and reaction. Who were their influences, where have they come from?
Cardboard cutouts will only stand upright. They won’t walk around, talk, fuck, babysit, eat pizza. You get the idea.

One of my favourite techniques is to refer back to influential films, with the grittier characters who defied expectations. The ones who stung my mind, made me reassess them with each viewing.

Oliver Stone, himself a Vietnam veteran, stated that “Platoon is fundamental, it’s almost biblical…looking back I have to say there were people who were predisposed to kill anything, and other people who are predisposed to restraint, and it’s not an easy equation because there are times when you are under pressure and you kill.”

Never more relevant than in the case of Staff Sgt. Robert “Bob” Barnes (Tom Berenger). He is, to my mind, a welcome example of faceted characterization. One half of the father-figure duo with Sgt. Elias Grodin (Willem Dafoe) set to tear the platoon apart as much as hold it together, his reticence is constantly tested by the troops’ inability to conform to the workings of the war machine:

“I am reality”

While Barnes seems to consistently act against decent morals – snarling into the face of a stricken soldier to “take the pain” – he is working in the context of Survival. In this scene, it’s his quick reaction to cut off the plaintive sounds that would draw enemy fire, which saves the rest of the platoon. He just has a funny way of showing he cares.

And he’s not always successful. Barnes has seen the tours, he has experience on his side; it’s not so much a survival kit as a soul-killer. Following a fatal explosion in a VC bunker, after two soldiers lift a trap, it’s his seamed face the camera finds. Real remorse lives there; for their stupidity, for his inability to train them adequately, and be a better father.

When a soldier is found brutally murdered, it’s through the narrative of Chris that Barnes is put into real crosshatched perspective:
“Barnes was the eye of our rage. And through him, our captain Ahab, we would set things right again. That day we loved him.”

Barnes is a harsh lesson in how circumstance may carve a soul. He’s a character I’ve drawn strongly upon when writing about the Hakken family in my novel, End of the Line.

The Hakkens are from the poor West side of town. The father, Garth Hakken, is a chronic jail-hopper done repeatedly for scrap trade, the only profession where credentials – hard to gain in a local education system angled towards the richer East side – aren’t necessary.

His continuous absence / reappearance in the lives of his four boys, creates friction in the family. Eldest son Garth Jr. particularly resents his father, and takes it upon himself to raise the three younger boys in as disciplined a manner as is possible for a hormonal young man, a gang leader himself. In forging a small army of his brothers, he creates a saving-grace control that the rest of the town mistakes for threatening.
As female protagonist Li tries to explain to newcomer Joe:

“It’s the only way he keeps them in line. They won’t listen to anyone else. Not with their dad inside… The Hakkens get a lot of flak in town, but at least people fear them, too. That’s all they’ve got, right? They live on the shittiest estate there is, outside Hell. This time of year, their roof – it’s all corrugated iron – sounds like constant gunfire, what with all the rain.”

Garth Jr. exerts a harsh love. He knows, far better than his young siblings can understand, that lack of education will most likely see them locked into the same criminal cycle as their father. For the time being, he holds this fate at bay, with daily drills and spot checks, to wear out their sullen anger and young firebrand energy. It instills routine into their lives, where all else has failed.

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Luc Besson could have taken the hackneyed route of depicting a chisel-faced assassin, with Leon; a protagonist capable of throwing out nifty one-liners, incapable of breaking a sweat.
Instead, he created a lasting memory of a very human individual.

Leon is a man of practicality, not image. His are comfortable, worn clothes, functional and forgettable. He is accustomed to moving quickly, silently through all arenas; the last thing he needs is a costume malfunction. This comes as a welcome and identifiable reality – that in order to perform well, one must be on familiar ground.

In a profession where death may come as an inevitability to either side, where chaos can linger, Leon remains forever alert. When he retires to his private state, everything has its place and he is well aware of that place. He unwinds to the simple things in life: musicals, milk, the careful tending of his plant-friend; the careful uncreasing of his clothes, is the smoothing out of darkness from his mind. It’s not exactly a glamorous existence, but a life nonetheless.

When this haven of experience is upended by the appearance of Mathilda, Leon is at once adult and child. The wariness on his face as he carefully lowers himself down to rest, after checking every inch of the new flat they’re forced to decamp to, is very human. He is left in a strange and potentially hostile environment, tripping over unfamiliarity. The facade of control has been stripped away, to reveal a fragile individual. We, the audience, know his fear though the hunched shoulders, the constant checking. He has been reduced to the same tense, wary soul he would have been before the training took over, and the last flat became a home.

When put into the context of writing, it can take the displacement of a character from their status quo, to truly draw out strengths and weaknesses. To find the soul of their story. Certainly, my protagonist Joe is a tense individual from the outset, liable to bite anyone’s head off. After being evicted from his family home because of his drunkard father’s state, he is quick to size people up as a potential enemy and traitor. It takes the friendship of Li to reawaken a sense of security and kinship, in a young man who is feeling the instability of his world on a harsh new level.

Don’t feel tempted to play by all genre rules when writing, or to create a series of extremes. Your characters will shine through their own experiences, the cause and reaction of memory and circumstance.

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