by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Demonstrating internal processes inside characters can be difficult. Seeing that a protagonist has learned a lesson, realized their greatest fault, or found true love can be challenging to paint with an external brush, since these transformations happen inside a character’s psyche. Showing an audience what your character truly loves can provide a window into who they really are. Here are four ways your character can demonstrate what he or she loves.
Love is expressed in a wide variety of ways across cultures. However, studies have shown that if someone never expresses their love to us verbally, we have serious doubts about whether they love us at all. We have an innate need to hear the words. Our characters can demonstrate their love for people, places, and things, but there may very well be moments in your script that the audience needs to hear that character articulate their feelings.
Of course, this is risky, because articulating such intimate feelings can come across as cheesy. It’s also tempting to have a character simply state their feelings and then never have him or her back up those words with actions, leaving the expression feeling empty. Writing dialogue for expressing our most intimate of human experiences can be tough, but can also be one of the most powerful moments in your story.
Take a look at Sandra Bullock’s heartbreaking words about her family in Gravity, Ben Affleck’s epic love confession in Chasing Amy, and Tom Cruise’s tearful bedside speech in Magnolia for excellent examples of characters expressing their love through words.
While words are important, they are not enough for love to feel genuine. We need to see and feel someone’s love through their actions. Sometimes the most subtle gesture can move emotional ice bergs. Other times, a gargantuan expression of love is required for the action to feel authentic. The appropriate actions a character must take to show love is unique to that character. It can be revealed to the audience through backstory, through early moments in the narrative, or through dialogue from others in that character’s life.
The actions a character takes should cost them something, as we will discuss momentarily in the section on sacrifice. Denzel Washington gives a powerful monologue about the actions he performs out of love for his son in Fences. However, Washington’s actions seem benign when the young man never hears his father tell him he loves him. In Moonlight, we see Black travel to a diner to see Kevin late one night, and we feel the love he still has for this character. Casey Affleck’s character has great trouble telling his nephew how much he loves him in Manchester By the Sea. However, the entire film’s actions serve as a love letter from one character to another.
3. TIME SPENT
We can learn a lot about who or what someone loves by tracking how they spend their time. We tend to give time to those we care the most about. We usually spend our free moments doing those things we enjoy the most. Our characters are no different.
We see Theodore’s love for Samantha in the amount of time he spends with her in Her. We see Bliss’s love for roller derby through the amount of time she dedicates to practice, competition, and immersing herself in the culture of the sport in Whip It. We see Martin Luther King Jr.’s love for the people of his community through the time he dedicates to their progress in Selma.
Perhaps the most powerful expression of love in both stories and real life is when we witness what a character is willing to give up for a person or cause they believe in. Sacrifice is one of the most commanding indicators of love in every culture. There is a certain dramatic irony in asking a character to give up something they love for someone else. An important principle is that we only ask characters to give up something that costs them. Otherwise, the stakes are not raised through the character’s sacrifice and the audience fails to fully invest in the moment.
Audiences most love seeing a character give up something that they may have had to give up themselves in their own life. In 12 Years a Slave, we see Solomon sacrifice his pride, his ego, and even his body for his wife. In The Iron Giant, we see the beloved protagonist lay down his life for the people he has come to care about. Jim Carey’s character gives a powerful speech about sacrificial love in the comedic Bruce Almighty.
Of course, sometimes sacrifice can be seen through a negative lens. Watching a character sacrifice their family for drugs or alcohol can be heartbreaking. People sacrifice for the people, places, and things they care most about. Our characters must do the same.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.