Conscious and Subconscious Action

About a year ago I watched The Book of Eli, a futuristic/post-apocalyptic type movie that really fascinated me. I highly recommend it!

The main character, Eli, in particular was intriguing.

As I watched, I realized how deeply his characterization was based in subconscious and conscious action. The actor (I think it was Denzel Washington?) pulled off the characterization and hooked the viewer by using the smallest details to portray emotion.

The writers or producer or maybe it was the actor himself used subconscious and conscious action to make the character come alive.

For example, in the movie Eli is traveling when he hears screams. He hides behind something and mutters to himself over and over, "There's nothing I can do." This is a conscious action not to help. He is choosing to remove himself from the situation. His repetition is subconscious though. He's trying to convince himself that it's true...or he's trying to comfort himself. Either way, we feel the weight of his guilt.

Later in the movie, a female protagonist enters the story. She is also almost raped and this time Eli helps her. When she cries, he moves forward and then stops himself. When she hugs him, the camera pans in and I notice he does NOT hug her back. Those are subconscious actions that reflect his internal turmoil.

When we create characters in situations, these tiny details will really show who a character is. The details themselves may not be noticed by a reader or viewer, but their impact is felt.

How do you use gestures and thoughts to deepen your character? How would you describe your main character, and how do you reinforce that personality/character trait in each scene? Do you have any specific quirks or impulses that appear in your daily life and give a clue to who you are?


Lisa Jordan said…
My Book Therapy dynamic duo Susan May Warren and Rachel Hauck teach using meaningful gestures to show what the character is not saying--how does the character show her nervousness while maintaining a steady voice. Those little quirks will give the reader a peek into her subconscious while reading between the lines as to what's truly being said in the scene.
Unknown said…
Awesome post, Jessica, and great examples.

This is something I'm conscious of (or hope I am) when I write. Hopefully I manage to do it as effectively as shown in your examples. :)
Terri Tiffany said…
I saw that was great. You have written a good post that makes me think about my current character. Thanks!
Lindsay Harrel said…
Hmmm, now I'm intrigued about this movie. Maybe I need to watch it.

But yes, using a meaningful gesture is so much more powerful than something like "he smiled," unless he's smiling at a funeral. ;)
Loree Huebner said…
I haven't seen this movie either. Sounds good.

I do use gestures and thoughts in my writing - so important. The can speak volumes if written the right way.

I'm sure I have quirk or
Sandra Orchard said…
Ooh, my husband has an amusing quirk. I think it's easier to see them in others than ourselves. Thanks for this timely reminder Jessica as I do my final read through this week.
Cool, Lisa. I didn't know that!

Stina, I hope I can do it too! lol
Jennifer Shirk said…
I LOVE this! I'm going to try and incorporate something like this in the book I'm editing.
You're welcome, Terri! It's making me think about my work too.

Lindsay, so true. I have revisions and I really need to clamp down and figure how to use this to my advantage.
LOL Loree! I'm sure you do too. :-)

Agree, Sandra!

Me too, Jennifer. I know I use "smiled" WAY too much.
Julie Jarnagin said…
I need to watch this one. It sounds interesting!
Cindy R. Wilson said…
Oooh, this is interesting. It's made me think about my main characters. Sometimes actions speak the loudest and I need to make sure my characters actions are saying something about them.
Unknown said…
I have to echo, Lisa...My Book Therapy, and Susie and Rachel, have taught me so much about including meaningful action...not just random body movement...but gestures that mean something. Love it! And I should watch that movie!
I need to see this movie! Great analysis of the gestures. I'm better at using thoughts than gestures, and find myself weeding out the same old-same old. LOL, for a while my heroines had a thing for zipping the crosses on the chains back and forth!
Patti said…
We were just talking about this in my critique group yesterday, how you only need little things to help convey the emotion of the character. Great post.
Brandi Boddie said…
I remember that movie. Denzel did a great job. So did the screenwriters :-)

Now I'm going to take a look at my characters and try to get their internal conflict to show up on the outside. Thanks, Jessica!
Nancy said…
Sounds like a very interesting and intricate movie to make.

I'm not sure I would be able to get all of these subtle characteristics into play.
Linda Kage said…
What a lovely post! I never stop to think about little things like that which really help portray the character more than anything else. Thanks!
I like this a lot, Jess. Of course, writing such a scene will take practice. My brain is in a knot just thinking about it. :)
I loved that film. Most of the post-apocalyptic crap was boring and overdone, but the main character was incredible and his acting was brilliant. I also thought the writers' treatment of the Bible was beautiful.
Hey Julie, I really liked it!!

Cindy, me too.

Melissa, you all are making me think about joining that group...they sound awesome.

Hahaaa, that's too funny, Georgiana!
Hey Patti,
It's funny how the little things sometimes mean the most.

Hey Brandi, doesn't he always do a great job? *grin*

Nancy, I don't know that I could either. It was very well done.
Linda, sometimes I think we writers do them instinctually, but it's always good to be aware of where we could use more of that. :-)

LOL Susan! I promise I know what you's easy to talk about, hard to do.

Sandra, I agree! That twist at the end was incredible too.
Sarah Forgrave said…
What a cool way to think of our characters, Jessica. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks for stopping by, Sarah!
Nick Wilford said…
Very thought-provoking post, hopefully things like this can show how a character is really feeling without having to explain it exhaustively. Maybe it is easier in a movie because everything is visual... but that's the challenge we face!
Angela Ackerman said…
Great observations. I'm going to mull this over and think about how I can show the subconscious and conscious actions better. Thanks!

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