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Buck, the movie: how your characters reflect you

Last night I saw the documentary Buck about horse whisperer Buck Brannaman. This movie is not just for horse lovers. It’s a touching story of hope and humanity—how one man overcame the pain and horrors of his early childhood and turned that experience, with the help of loving foster parents, into helping horses and their owners. Instead of repeating the cycle of abuse his father perpetrated on him, Buck found a way to transmute that pain into love, understanding, patience, and compassion.

Buck is a modern-day cowboy version of Gandhi.

The film shows Buck at work—his 40 weeks on the road each year traveling from town to town putting on horse clinics for the locals, showing them how to communicate with and handle their horses. The film shows us where Buck comes from—his harsh early years where he developed the survival skills and insights that eventually set his personal philosophy. We also get to see him working on the set of the movie the Horse Whisperer with Robert Redford.

What does this story have to do with writing? As writers, we’re constantly on the lookout for good characterization, setting, dialogue, etc. This movie has it all—but there was something else I learned about being a writer.

In one scene, we see the heartbreaking case of a horse that was oxygen-deprived and orphaned at birth. The horse, explained Brannaman, was like a special-needs child who would have thrived if the owner had given the horse the extra attention it needed, or at least found somebody who could raise the horse properly. Instead, the owner neglected the horse’s needs, and it became a wild and dangerous animal. Even Buck can’t get the animal calmed down enough to save it. After the horse violently attacks a person at Buck’s horse clinic (which we see in the film), the owner decides to have the horse “destroyed.”

Everyone in the audience sat stunned—we were crying for the horse that didn’t get the chance it deserved, that every living creature deserves, and we were angry at the owner. Buck compassionately but firmly scolds the owner, a woman with many other horses, and explains to her and others at the clinic how their horses are a mirror of themselves.

If your horse has an issue—is afraid, angry, or arrogant—then the owner has to look in the mirror and ask themselves what is going on in their own life. Some people shouldn’t own horses or have pets, just like some people should never have children.

I sat thinking about this insight—our animals as a reflection of us—and realized that, as writers, our characters are also a reflection of us. I’ve heard others say that you can learn much about a writer by examining the characters they create, but we can also use this knowledge to deepen our characters and improve our stories.

How do you create your characters? If you’re having troubles with a character, ask yourself these questions:

What kind of care do you give your characters? What kind of world do you build for your characters? Do you give them all the support they need? Good dialogue, realistic settings, depth of personality? Do your characters have a soul? Do you know what your characters deepest desires are? What they’re afraid of? What they’re passionate about? Are they undersexed or oversexed? Do they like themselves? Despise themselves? Are they aware of themselves? How aware? Do you know their darkest secrets? Do they know their darkest secrets?

Your character doesn’t necessarily need to know the answers to all these questions. But you, as their creator, do.

If you’re having problems with your story or a character, pretend the problem area is a mirror and look at yourself. What do you see?

Maybe your dark antagonist is really well developed, but you can’t seem to get a handle on your protagonist or any hopeful or redemptive thread in your story. Could it be because, in your own life, you’re not finding that ray of hope? Maybe, right now, all you can see is darkness?

Bring this extra level of awareness with you to enrich your story and make your readers feel as if they’re reading about real people.

Exercise: Take one character in your current work who is giving you trouble and ask yourself what ways the character may be a mirror for you. Make a list. Now, go deeper. Like Buck Brannaman, examine the deepest parts of your heart and bring it into the light of understanding. How can you use this knowledge to help your character?

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