Your Character’s Symbol

yellow trashWell-written television has much to teach a novelist. The visual nature of its exposition reaches our brain differently.

It’s how Longmire taught me about assigning your character a symbol. It’s a concept I haven’t fully explored yet, but when it comes to Sheriff Walt Longmire, it’s been a powerful tool.

Walt hates trash. His small town deserves better, so from the first episode it’s a common scene for Walt to stop as he crosses the street to pick up some bit of trash and toss it where it belongs.

At first, it’s just Walt, picking up a gum wrapper.

Then, it’s Walt falling behind a co-worker because he paused to pick up a cigarette butt to toss.

After while, he’s crossing the street with the big city detective who’s investigating Walt for murder — and still, Walt stops to pick up the trash.

It becomes a symbol of goodness. When we see another character step over the detritus which Walt then stoops to retrieve, we know they’re the jerk we suspected them of being.

The payoff: after a long slow build for two seasons, Walt parks his truck across the street from the Sheriff’s station. The deputy who ran against him in the last election has been shot and left for dead. Walt found him on the Cheyenne reservation where neither of them was supposed to be. His deputy regains consciousness just long enough to tell Walt he was shot by a dead man, a man they both saw shoot himself in a video suicide note.

Between the cliffhanger ending of season two and the gangbuster opening of season three it’s magnificently intense.

So when the scene opens with a wadded up sheet of yellow paper blowing down the street, then cuts to Walt getting out of his truck, we see it coming: the “Walt hates trash” scene. He’ll stop, even now, and pick up that trash, because it’s what he does, what he’s always done. We’re primed to watch him, even now, grab that annoying scraping ball of paper as it blows down the middle of the street. So we watch, expecting.

Blowing trash.

Walt crossing.

Yellow paper scuds along.

Walt walks right past it and bangs through the door.

Wait; did Sheriff Walt Longmire just step over trash in the street?

At first I thought I’d missed it, that I was mistaken.

Then it hit me: Walt is far more disturbed by the deputy’s injuries and the surrounding mystery than Robert Taylor’s acting alone was showing us. After all, Walt ain’t exactly gushy about his feelings.

So some smart writer gave us the one piece of trash, big yellow trash, that tells us what Walt can’t: this is big. Really really big.

Can you give your main character a symbol, a ritual, something they’d do unconsciously no matter what, and then use it as a barometer? I haven’t done this yet, but watching it made quite an impression and I think I will.

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