One Moment That Reveals Everything You Need To Know About A Character

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I’ve been revisiting(read: binge-watching) some favorite films recently, and started noticing how one moment or a single line of dialogue in a movie can reveal everything one needs to know about a character.

These were a couple of my favorite character-revealing moments in film:

Casablanca, Captain Louis Renault: “Round up the usual suspects.”

Captain Renault actually delivers variations of this line twice, and that repetition reveals two important aspects of this secondary character. Renault is speaking to newly arrived German Major Strasser the first time he refers to rounding up suspects, in a way that establishes the French Renault as a compliant bureaucrat who is implementing a foreign power’s bidding. He delivers the line again right after Major Strasser has been shot, simultaneously saving Rick Blaine and indicating that his character has broken away from his obeisance to the German/Vichy Regime.

Lawrence of Arabia, Omar Sharif: “He is dead…(Y)ou are welcome.”

Between the long, slow cinematic entrance (during  which he emerges from a distant dust cloud on the horizon to filling the screen) and a couple of lines of terse dialogue, Omar Sharif makes an unforgettable impression as Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia.

In that scene we watch Sherif cut down a trespasser on his property, while simultaneously extending traditional courtesy to a visiting stranger.

Of course in literature, dialogue and prose must establish the essence of a character without any assistance from camera tricks and musical scores. In your own writing, can you think of a moment or a line of dialogue that revealed the true nature of one of your characters?

18 thoughts on “One Moment That Reveals Everything You Need To Know About A Character

  1. You had me at Casablanca (one of my all-time favorites). And I love that you’re finding so much meaning in so few words. That’s the stuff authors yearn to write.

    • I know, right? It’s amazing to think that that film wasn’t expected to be anything special, just another wartime B romance film despite its big name cast. Now people teach courses for Writers based on the film.

  2. Louis has so many great lines in Casablanca, and no one but the great actor Claude Raines could have made them iconic.

    “I like to think you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me.”

    “I’m shocked, SHOCKED, to find that gambling is going on in here!”

    “Why do you interfere with my little romances?”

    But my favorite is just before the “usual suspects” line, when Rick reminds Louis he has a gun pointed straight at his heart:

    “That is my least vulnerable spot.”

    Two primary ways great lines like that come: first, by “curving the language” (something I’ve taught elsewhere); and second, when it “pops out” of the character without you seeing it coming. The latter is the rarest occurrence, but when it happens it’s gold (it happened once in my recently completed WIP, and turned the whole story around).

    • It’s so hard to pick one line from that movie—so many incredible ones to choose from! Also Rick to Ingrid recalling their last moments in a bitter voice: “The Germans wore grey. You wore blue.” ?

  3. Sigh. If Only. I’m lucky to get ‘click moments’ for my characters–the sort that define them for me, but never turn into on the page brilliance. Sigh.

    • As long as the reader keeps turning the page, that’s all the brilliance we need—thanks for dropping in, Terry!

    • Oof, not a sympathetic character. It might be interesting to have Gramps comment on some other trait, with the subtext that he means race. Thanks for visiting, Priscilla!

  4. LOL – this is the first thing that came to mind.

    This quote from a character doesn’t reveal much about him, but reveals something about both the main characters and foreshadows the whole movie to come (had to look it up to get it right)

    First of all, keep him out of the light, he hates bright light, especially sunlight, it’ll kill him. Second, don’t give him any water, not even to drink. But the most important rule, the rule you can never forget, no matter how much he cries, no matter how much he begs, never feed him after midnight. – from Gremlins.

    You just know that somehow, for some reason, he is going to break every rule. You also know there will be consequences with Gizmo when he does.

  5. We have this character in our new book who’s an aetheist radio shock jock Walter Bushman. He was a riot to write and my sister gave him some of the best lines. (creeps are often the most seductive for writers). He’s dogging on our hero Louis who is there is interrogate him as a possible murder suspect of a minister and the guy says:

    “You cops are are so full of yourself you taste your own sh*t when you burp.”

    He’s a real charmer.

  6. Nice post, Kathryn. What’s also great about these lines is WHEN they are delivered. In Louis’ case, the second time is toward the end after all that has happened to Rick and him. Timing is just as important as the content IMO.

    • Yes, that callback (not sure that’s the right film term for when a character echoes an earlier moment) is brilliant because it sums up the character growth right near the end, thereby setting the stage for the closing scene where we see Renault and Rick walk off together toward the “Free French garrison,” as it was called in the movie. Thanks for joining in our discussion today, Steven!

  7. Warning: I tend to write very graphic scenes. You may not want to read it.
    This scene defines the antagonist, Detective Claire Meeks, as she trains her new partner, Eve Bell. The books title is “The First Murder is the Hardest”

    “Looking at the girl while the EMTs try to save her, you’ll remember today and these two. You’ll say to yourself, I shoulda let Claire toss their worthless asses off that balcony. I shoulda watched each of them as they splattered on the rust covered concrete below. I shoulda done that and maybe I’d have saved a pretty young girl.”
    “Claire, really.”
    “Hey, bitch. You can’t do anything like that. You a cop and I got rights.” The boy was about ten years old.
    A slap followed
    Detective Claire Meeks pointed to the other boy. “What’s your name?”
    “Fuck you, bitch.”
    Claire grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and swung him out into free air. He seemed to hang there a moment, his face incredulous.
    Eve watched him fall six stories and land on his head. It broke open and brains and blood splattered all around him. The other boy screamed. Claire tossed him over the rail. He landed only a few feet from this partner or brother or whatever their relationship. His head oozed blood. Eve thought she saw him blink.
    “Prophylactic policing.”
    Eve spun around. “That was murder.”
    “It was ridding the community of a certain danger.”

  8. Kathryn – Casablanca was never a B movie. It was always an A film. It’s true that WB didn’t expect it to be the hit it was. They didn’t expect it to tank, either, just to perform like the umpteen other movies they were producing at the time.

    I think Casablanca is a great example of the unpredictability of hits. Based on an unproduced play, rewritten over and over during production by writers who didn’t meet (I’m referring to the Epsteins and Howard Koch, specifically), actors who didn’t have rapport offscreen, with the ending uncertain during shooting (Ilsa very nearly ended up with Rick), and, yes, nothing beyond average expectations, it becomes one of the best loved movies of all time. Nobody could have predicted that.

    I don’t want to hijack the blog, but I could go on and on about Casablanca. Both it and Lawrence of Arabia are two of my favorite “going to sleep movies” (movies I play to relax my mind and sleep). So many great lines.

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