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Monday, July 16, 2012

Creating Characters with True Grit

It's a rare movie that delivers writing lessons, but that's exactly what I got when I watched the remake of True Grit with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon.

I had put off watching this movie for a long time, thinking the remake was just another sappy story about a kid demanding justice. I was wrong.

While the premise remained the same, the movie was grittier and more realistic than the original. A lot of the credit has to go to the script and the young girl who played Mattie (Hailie Steinfeld).

Without giving away too much of the movie, I noticed that with every turn, the director made things more and more dire for the protagonist. The odds remained stacked against Mattie to the very end.

We all know that's critical for a good story. But what impressed me was the depth (and risk) the director was willing to take by making the cost (vengeance) so dear that the ending actually shocked me.

Had the same events happened to the sheriff (Bridges) or the Texas Ranger (Damon), it would be sad, but acceptable. But because it was a child who deliberately placed herself in danger, it made the story all the more poignant and chilling. The movie ended up being part morality play and part drama.

It forced me to examine goal versus cost in my stories. I know I'm always too easy on my main characters in the first draft. It's only when I start tweaking that I squeeze every ounce of emotion by threatening the characters to the brink of their existence.

I'll never forget the frantic email I got from a reader when she found out what I did to poor Grey in Apocalypse Rising. I did the unthinkable and the reader feared for his life--the life of a fictional character.

I try to accomplish two things in a story. The protagonist must want something well out of his reach. And the cost must be so high that the reader is sure he'll fail.

In True Grit, Mattie is obsessive-compulsive. She will not take no for an answer and she's sees her path as crystal clear and resolute. She hires a sheriff known for his true grit because he's the only person who will have the same resolve as herself. They might be doing it for different reasons, but the goal is the same and that's all that's important to her.

In the original movie, John Wayne was the one depicted with true grit, (being his movie) but in the remake, this is more Mattie's story. She's the real character with 'true grit'. She is willing to risk it all and that resonated with me. 

How far would you go to bring your father's killer to justice, to save a child, or the love of your life? How far did I go to find a beloved pet? Maybe the better question would be: What wouldn't we do? 

If it's important to us, we do whatever it takes. That's what keeps us glued to the edge of our seats.

Has anyone seen the True Grit remake? What did you think?

Second question for American history buffs: I know from reading Civil War letters that Americans spoke quite formally in the 1800s--as they do in this movie. 

There are plenty of euphemisms and slang, but the dialog itself is stiffer and formal. Does anyone know when we started speaking more casually? If I were to venture a guess, I would say after WWI, but I honestly don't know for sure.


Mike Keyton said...

Ref Sacrifice and goals - a timely reminder, Maria. Thank you.

Ref formal speech, if you look at old films you'll find that for Britain it may have been post World War II. Have you seen 'Brief Encounter' : ). Seriously though with stuff like that it is hard to fix an artificial line - especially in a country as large as America - the norm would vary from state to state and from age group to age group.

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

I would also guess at post ww2... Many formalities went out of the window at that time and social mores were changing very rapidly...

Clarissa Draper said...

I haven't seen the movie but I like it when characters have goals or quests. When there is something they know they have to get done and nothing stops them. All characters should have that.

Sarah Ahiers said...

Ooh good question regarding the formal speech.
And yeah, i have seen True Grit and though it was excellent on multiple levels. I also really loved the humor in it. Great movie

Barbara Ann Wright said...

I did see it and enjoyed it. I kept waiting for Mattie to relax a little, not about her father's killer, but really about anything.

*minor spoiler alert*

Even in the end, she didn't let up about anything. As a grown woman, she was just as stiff as ever.

Maria Zannini said...

Mike: This is why diary entries and letters to loved ones are so important. I've always been fascinated with sociological change. It seems so strange to read such formal dialog--especially today when people can't even bother to spell out whole words.


Pat: I keep thinking of the flappers and such. They looked pretty casual to me. I figured their language followed suit. :)

Maria Zannini said...

Clarissa: In the movie, Mattie was resolute to the extreme. I half expected it from an adult, but I think it disarmed me coming from a child.

Sarah: The humor was good (and subtle). If you weren't paying attention to the conversation, you missed it.

Barbara: This is why I hypothesized that she was OCD. I expected her to soften a little.

Jennifer Shirk said...

I haven't seen it, but you make me want to now. I do love it when you really feel for a character and understand how desperate they are in a situation.

Jackie Burris said...

Saw the movie remake at the theatre and after thinking about the many times we re-watched the original with John Wayne have to say liked it better, it had more appeal as it was made in a more "innocent" time period. The remake was indeed grittier, more realistic and at times even daunting to watch but you are right Maria the young woman who played Mattie Ross had her role down in spades and she really carried the movie well!

KarenG said...

I REALLY enjoyed True Grit. I remember seeing the John Wayne version back in the day and wasn't that crazy about seeing the remake but it was WAY better than the original. I like your point that it's the girl with true grit in this film. She was fabulous. And the dialogue was amazing. No contractions. No slang. Long thoughtful sentences well spoken. It sucked me right in and added an element of authenticity.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I haven't seen the remake of TRue Grit but I always thought the first one showed the girl was the one with True Grit, rather than Rooster.

Maria Zannini said...

Jennifer: What was strange is that I started watching it half-heartedly, but I was soon immersed in the story waiting to see how it would end.

Jackie: I was surprised to learn she was only 13 years old.

Ref: had more appeal as it was made in a more "innocent" time period.

Movies from the 60s tended to be innocent and sometime naive. That was the time we were living in. This is why I prefer older movies when I'm feeling low.

Sarita said...

I have wondered about seeing this movie, but now that I've read your impressions I've decided--I am going to watch it. And now I'm excited to sit down and watch it, so thank you.

You know what I'll be doing tonight!

Maria Zannini said...

KarenG: To me, it was like reading from a Civil War diary. It had the same melancholy and subtlety. I like that you brought up the 'long, thoughtful sentences'. I was hooked from the beginning even though I came in not wanting to watch it.

Susan: I think the original was trying to show each of the main characters had true grit, but being the 60s, it was really John Wayne's film.

The remake made it clear that this was the girl's film in a very stark and profound way. I recommend it.

Maria Zannini said...

Sarita: Pay close attention to the dialog. It's quite clever.

Hope you enjoy it!

Angela Brown said...

Well I'm feeling pretty useless right not. I haven't seen the movie and I'm not of a history buff. But I've chatted with a circle of guys that watched the movie and every single one of them were impressed by the young girl in the movie. They said the same as you, that the character with "true grit" in the movie was Mattie.

I try not to consider certain things. My mind can wander to dark places, blank out and give the feral side of me permission to do things that probably wouldn't be right in the eyes of God or the devil if something terrible happened to Chipmunk.

Maria Zannini said...

Angela: I'm sure you must've read the recent news story of the father who killed a man with his bare hands when he found that man molesting his five-year old daughter.

I didn't blame him in the least.

Jenny Schwartz said...

I'm ALWAYS too nice to my characters. Like you, Maria, I have to go back and add challenges, make things nearly-impossible. Make things hurt. I keep hoping for that miraculous day when I can send my characters out into new storyland to suffer and grow from the very beginning.

Maria Zannini said...

Jenny: We're just too nice, Jenny. LOL!

Stacy McKitrick said...

We own both movies (my husband has nearly every John Wayne movie that's been available on DVD), but haven't seen the remake yet. I think it will move to the top of the TBW (to be watched) pile now!

Shelley Munro said...

I've seen bits and pieces of the movie. It definitely lived up to the title. This post is a great reminder to me to give my characters a harder time.

The characters in Deadwood speak quite formally too. It seems to me that as the years progress we tend to shorthand more and more. Maybe it's because we're all in so much of a hurry so we abbreviate things.

LD Masterson said...

Well, heck, I feel all left out. I've not seen the remake of True Grit. I guess I'll have to Netflix it. .

Maria Zannini said...

Stacy: I was really surprised how good it was.

Shelley: Nowadays so many people text in shorthand. I wonder what our ancestors would think of that.

Linda: That's where I found it. Put it on one night and let me know what you thought of it.

Melissa McClone said...

I've been meaning to see this, but just never got around to it. I will have to get it. Thanks for the recommendation!

Madeleine Maddocks said...

Great post, thought provoking. I like the comment: The protagonist must want something well out of his reach. And the cost must be so high that the reader is sure he'll fail.

Nope not seen True Grit in either version I'm afraid.

Maria Zannini said...

Melissa: I was surprised I enjoyed it. I guess I'm always leery of remakes.

Madeleine: Westerns aren't my go-to genre, but this is worth seeing just to analyze story development.

Gina Gao said...

This sounds really great. I look forward to watching this.

Cate Masters said...

I felt the same way about 3:10 to Yuma. I think I actually said "wow" at the end. Both remakes were excellent.

Maria Zannini said...

Gina: Hope you enjoy it.

Cate: I don't think I've ever seen 3:10 to Yuma. I'll have to look that up.