Character Creation — “There Will Be Blood”


As an addition to my previous post about characters and language, watching actors at work inspires me and provokes me to think about how important detail is when creating a character.

Over the weekend I finally saw the movie There Will Be Blood.  Daniel Day Lewis played the main character, Daniel Plainview, an “oilman” who wants to make enough money so he can live someplace away from people.  Day Lewis uses everything at his disposal to create Plainview — his body, gestures, manner of speaking, his silences also, the way he walks and runs.  Plainview is a man who walks with his shoulders hunched in self-protection, closed, his legs bowed and with a slight limp from a broken leg at the beginning of the movie.  There is also a slinking quality to his walk and movements.  His expression however is one of confidence, knowing, being in control.  I love seeing the incongruities, and master actors most often bring them out in subtle ways, as Day Lewis does.

The really impressive aspect of Day Lewis’ Plainview however is the voice and manner of speaking.  Not even close to Day Lewis’ actual voice — there’s only one moment in the entire movie when he sounds like himself and that’s when he shouts at one point.  Otherwise, the voice conveys in its raspy rhythms a smooth operator and a hint of unpleasantness, danger, threat. 

I don’t know if any of this detail was on the page in the script or evolved from Day Lewis and/or discussions with the director/writer.  But for me as a writer, it is a reminder of the use of detail to create a fully-dimensional character on the page, someone the reader can easily imagine.  Real people are a conglomeration of detail in movement, appearance, speech and behavior and fictional characters need to be also.  Which doesn’t mean it’s easy….

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5 responses to “Character Creation — “There Will Be Blood”

  1. How fortuitous topic. I was just reading an update on the release of a novel I really anticipate. Careless in Red, by Elizabeth George. I love her work. After her last novel in a series, I didn’t know how she was going to continue. I wondered “will there be more?” If not, I suppose it was a very intriguing way to bid adieu to the characters she had created.

    I am firmly of the opinion that I would rather wait 5 years – or more – to get another stupendously good piece of work, rather than have the author churn out another as fast as possible. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the release date for this, and realized she was continuing the series. A very traditional English police-procedural.

    There’s an essay by George on her website about the challenges for an author who is writing a series of books.
    http://www.elizabethgeorgeonline.com/essay_whatcame.htm
    As the top of the page states ‘warning – spoilers’. The essay is about “What Came Before He Shot Her” and “With No One as Witness”. There’s a big spoiler, about the death of a major character. If you’re a fan, and haven’t gotten around to reading this, you might want to read the novel first. It was a gut wrenching shock for me.

    That said, George’s essay is all about the writer, her process, and her philosophy about writing. I quite sincerely think you will enjoy it.

  2. I’ve been watching the Inspector Lynley mysteries on PBS’ “Mystery” series for several years now, and I know what the shocker was. Poor Lynley. I have to confess that I haven’t read the books! Yikes! I’ll check out George’s essay. Thanks for the link.

  3. I’m not sure if the TV surprise was the same as the books. In the show, Helen walks out on him, which doesn’t happen in the books. Although, I haven’t seen the last season of episodes.

    I read “Playing for the Ashes”, my first experience with her writing. I loved it, and promptly went fishing around for the ‘first’ book in the story line. I found the end of “With No One as Witness” absolutely riveting.

    I never quite bought into the image of Barbara Havers from the tv show – the books describe her as far more unattractive. Of course, the “Professor Umbridge” from Harry Potter #5 is repeatedly described as “toad like”; Imelda Stanton doesn’t quite look amphibious enough. One must go with acting ability first and foremost, afterall.

    Ah, well. Writing murder mysteries is far more exciting, but not nearly so germane to my current report. Which is much more germane to getting that piece of paper from the university next year.

  4. BIG SPOILER!!!

    Oh, the TV surprise is Helen’s death in a shocking, brutal, and heart-breaking way right in front of Lynley and others. He and Helen had been working on reconciliation and were really coming to terms with their relationship, balancing careers, etc. So, it was just like suddenly falling off a cliff. I just sat there in front of the TV thinking, wow, that was brave.

    And Elizabeth George talks about how she came to do that to Helen in the essay you referenced in your first comment. What an enjoyable read! And I could relate to everything, really, that she wrote. When I wrote “Perceval,” I got to this major moment toward the end, the moment of decision for Evan, and then was totally shocked that I wrote him doing something I’d not even thought of before. It was so awful, too, that I couldn’t write for a week. But when I went back to it, thought about it, I realized that everything from chapter one on was leading up to that decision and it could only have been one way. So interesting the way the imagination works, withholding sometimes from the conscious mind until the moment it needs to reveal.

    Since I haven’t read George’s Lynley books, I really enjoy Havers on the TV show. I like that she and Lynley care about each other but are so different — really different — people and might not be friends otherwise.

  5. I remember reading some viewer opinion somewhere – probably amazon.com – to wit “when are lynley & havers going to get together?”

    I thought it wonderful that they aren’t a ‘couple’. I find it refreshing that a man and woman work together, and no one is interested in the other romantically. Somewhere toward the beginning, in the first few books, Havers realizes that she likes Lynley, despite his ‘posh’ background. Not in the ‘let’ go have a beer’ sense, but a deep respect for the other, combined with the realization that she (professionally) needs him.

    In … well, I can’t keep the titles straight … “Deception on His Mind” (I think) – where Havers heads down to the shore, winds up working wiht a woman she knew from police school, with a murder of a pakistani, running afoul of her Pakistani neighbor .. the TV version ends with a boat chase. Lynley isn’t actually there through most of the book. But it is at the end of this volume where he sincerely pulls her bacon out of the fire – simply because he respects her and wants to work with her.

    Yes, as you put it – they wouldn’t be friends otherwise.

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