American Hustle: A lesson in over-the-top characters?

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Christian BaleThis weekend, I finally had the chance to see American Hustle, which I greatly enjoyed.  (Yes, my movies don’t all have to have robots and alternate universes in them.)  The movie featured a gross ton of class acting, even in the bit parts (De Niro!  Zerbe!), and the story was a lot of fun all around.

But when it was over, it occurred to me that one of the reasons that so many of these actors (and the movie) were on the short list for Oscars this year, was the preponderance of over-the-top characters.  And I wondered if that was something I needed to think more about.

Christian (Batman) Bale, pictured above, stands out the most here, as the elaborately combed-over, jazz-loving, philandering, overweight and weak-hearted suburban con man Irving Rosenfeld (even the name sounds over-the-top in “average Joe” territory).  But there’s something over-the-top about every character in this movie, from the overly-dependent wife, to the curler-wearing IRS agent, to the con-loving other woman, to the Camden Mayor with the large family, including an adopted black kid, to the shadowy mobsters (De Niro!) and senators (Zerbe!).  Few of the characters here seem ordinary; every one is, literally, a character.  And maybe the best part: They are all based on real people!

Okay, real loosely, but still.

At any rate, here you have a movie real loosely based around the events of Abscam, stocked with nothing but over-the-top characters, and this movie gets Oscar, Golden Globe and SAG awards up the wazoo.

Have I been missing something?

When I write novels, I try to create characters that have interesting aspects about them, but who are essentially regular people trying to fit into a regular world.  When they are out in my literary “public,” they don’t stand out like Where’s Waldo at a chimneysweeps’ convention.  I figure everyone has a personal secret or two, but in general, they don’t wear those secrets on their sleeves when they go out in public.  Maybe one or two characters will have something seriously, noticeably unusual about them, but they will be few among many more publicly-average people.

In Hustle, everyone’s secrets were on their sleeves.  In neon.  With attached sparklers.  And the audience loves it.

And come to think of it, that’s the way it usually goes in movies.  How many well-remembered movie characters don’t have their secrets on their sleeves?  Everyone remembers the Shadow, Lamont Cranston… who remembers Claude Fellows?

It occurs to me that I may have way too many Fellows in my novels, and not enough Cranstons.  My most popular novel series, the Kestral Voyages, have the most atypical characters in my roster; the books with the fewest atypical characters are also my least popular.  Likewise, these days I tend to read books with the most atypical characters per capita in them (I knew there was a  reason I liked The Dresden Files besides mere magic).  This thought is hitting me like a Nook to the back of my head.

As I happen to be developing a short story at the moment, and considering which writing projects I’ll jump on next, I just know that I’ll now be looking at all my characters to see where I can add in a bit of private weirdness here, a badly-concealed secret there, in order to spice them up beyond my usual salt-and-pepper treatments.  At the same time, I can’t let these traits overcome my stories; they must weave into them.

Like a good hair weave, I suppose.

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