Posted in Film, Writing

Why Character is So Important to Your Stories

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — Let Me In (2010)

Let Me In is a gothic horror masterpiece, and one of the best remakes ever made. It creates a mesmerizing, chilling mood from minute one and never hits a single false note. It features astonishing performances. And it features a career-defining moment for the gifted Matt Reeves, who wrote and directed this film. While he could’ve followed Cloverfield with another eye-popping, fast-paced monster movie, he instead chose a project that’s quiet, haunting, and poetic.

Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Owen, a reserved twelve-year-old kid trying to stay warm and avoid bullies in the wintry town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1983. He befriends a girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) who lives in his apartment complex just next door — her name is Abby, and she’s not like any of the other girls. Owen tries his best to fit in at school and find peace in his broken home, and it’s Abby who brings the best out in him. The truth unveiled about who this girl is sends Owen on a journey he never thought possible.

Let Me In is one of those horror films, like The Exorcist and Halloween, that draw you in just as much through setting as they do story. A quiet, mysterious town drenched with snow on any given day calls out for tales of the macabre already, and the way director Reeves weaves his fine performances, multi-faceted storylines, and hypnotic visuals into this memorable story is pure genius. The scenes that take place on the jungle gym in the center of the apartment complex between Owen and Abby are fascinating, but made all the more romantic through the snow falling by their faces and the shivers running through Owen’s freezing body.

The performances are terrific. Moretz shows great restraint, making us believe she’s developing a bond with Owen while also on the hunt for fresh blood. Smit-McPhee holds much of Let Me In on his shoulders, and he never makes a wrong turn in his performance. He plays the shy side well, but he’s at the same time very good at the inquisitive, curious, and disturbed. His look is perfect for the role, but his performance is nuanced and completely believable.

Matt Reeves worked as a writer for fifteen years, penning medicore 90s fare like Under Siege 2 and The Yards, as well as writing and directed that forgettable 1996 comedy The Pallbearer, starring David Schwimmer and Gwyneth Paltrow. Talk about a career resurgence — his writing and directing on Let Me In is extraordinary. Many will take issue with the fact that he just remade someone else’s movie, but he has made this version of the story just as successful as the terrific original. Reeves made this movie his way, and his way only.

The film also features a great supporting cast, some visually stunning moments, a perfect amount of goopy gore, and a magnificent score. Two of the finest character actors Elias Koteas and Richard Jenkins put in short but commanding turns in this, as well as Dylan Minnette, who plays the head buddy with no-holds-barred maliciousness. The cinematography by Greig Fraser is stunning, with one incredibly shot scene after another. A shot that plays out in real time as a car careens down a hill is the show-stopper, while the work done in the pool scene at the end is pure genius. The gore in the movie is plentiful, but only when necessary. Visual effects are used to a bare minimum, thankfully, and most of the gore looks nauseatingly real. And finally, the score by Michael Giacchino is immediately purchase-worthy, the kind of haunting, hypnotic score only the luckiest of directors get to use in their horror movies.

Let Me In may not be for everyone, particularly those who want their scream fixes fast and furious, but for the more patient viewers, the ones who enjoy a slower-paced horror film with a rich story, luscious images, and two impressive young adult performances, this is one of the great cinematic horror treats of the last ten years.

Watching Like a Writer

What Let Me in teaches me to do in my horror writing is take the necessary time to develop my characters and especially the relationships between my characters before I allow the terror to take over. This film works so beautifully because you genuinely care about the two main characters, and so when the horror scenes come, you have an immediate investment in what’s going on. Character is everything in basically every kind of story, but it’s especially important in horror because there’s no way to truly scare the viewer or reader if there’s no care in the world about the characters themselves. The Haunting of Hill House, currently airing on Netflix, is probably the best current project to prove this point — the show could’ve been spooky and entertaining, with the occasional jump scare, but the time spent developing the fascinating characters actually makes it all the more horrifying.

Exercise!

Think of a horror story idea, and then, instead of writing the story right away, write bios for all the main characters. What makes your characters unique? Why will readers want to follow them through your story?

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