In 1995, Liam Neeson became the embodiment of honor with his portrayal of Robert Roy MacGregor. Rob Roy is often referred to as the Scottish Robin Hood for his defiance of British rule and love for his people. The movie is only loosely based on actual events. And not to be confused with the cocktail of the same name. Sorry, you’ll find no mention of spirits in here. In case some of us haven’t seen this gem of a movie, I’ll give a quick synopsis.
Rob Roy is a historical drama set in the 18th century Scottish Highlands. It tells the story of Rob, who borrows one thousand pounds from the Marquis of Montrose (the British ruler of those parts) which he uses to buy and drive cattle to the big city in order to feed his clan and make a few bucks. One of the Marquis’s henchmen, Archibald Cunningham (played brilliantly by Tim Roth, who was nominated for an Academy Award), learns of the deal and kills Rob’s friend, taking the money for himself.
Unable to pay the loan, Rob is forced to live the life of an outlaw after he refuses to bear false witness against the Marquis to the Duke of Argyll (Scottish nobility). Cunningham relentlessly pursues, and realizing Rob’s honor, rapes his wife in order to flush him out. Rob’s wife keeps the rape to herself fearing her husband would demand justice, thus turning himself in. Rob is ultimately captured at the hand of Cunningham, only to escape. Rob’s wife tells the Duke of Argyll everything and he agrees to propose a duel to the death between Rob and Cunningham to the Marquis, who is only too happy to agree. The stage is set for a climatic duel to the death.
The film makers waste little time establishing Rob’s honor, which is instrumental throughout the movie. The movie opens with Rob leading five men to retrieve stolen cattle. The others want to kill the thieves and take the cattle home, but Rob elects to talk with the thieves alone. Why? Rob knows one of them. In the morning he offers the familiar thief a choice: either turn himself in and spare the other thieves, or Rob and his men kill the lot of them and take back the cattle. The thief pulls out a blade and Rob is forced to kill him. He tells the rest of the thieves to throw down their weapons and they would be spared. We learn that Rob is a man of his word, a man of integrity, and a man of honor, all in the first ten minutes of the movie by the respect he gives a common thief.
If we look closer at this scene, we learn that the way Rob reacts to the world around him shows us who he is. Every decision, reaction, word, everything he does tells us something about his character. This scene establishes the man behind the name and shows us that we should be doing the same thing in our writing. Our characters show the reader who they are not only by what they do, but also how they do it. Not only by what they say, but how they say it. If we carefully weave those bits and pieces of our characters into our story, we can expose our audience to what makes our characters who they are in a more natural feeling way.
Let’s move to the next scene where Rob arrives home and speaks with his two young sons. I’ll write it out in conversation form, showing only what was said.
“Will the MacGregors ever be kings again?”
“All men with honor are kings, but not all kings have honor,” Rob replies.
“What no man can give you and no man can take away. Honor is a man’s gift to himself.”
“Do women have it?”
“Women are the heart of honor. We cherish and protect it in them. We must never mistreat a woman, nor malign a man. Nor stand by and see another do so.”
“How do you know if you have it?”
“Never worry on the getting of it. It grows in you and speaks to you. All you need do is listen.”
As you can see, this is such a simple conversation, yet it establishes so much of Rob’s character. We learn he covets not only his own honor, but each person’s in turn. He looks out for women and will not look the other way when anyone is mistreated. Honor is very important to Rob and anyone on the wrong side of it should be afraid. The righteous have nothing to fear. This comes into play much later in the film after Rob is robbed and his wife raped. I’m going to stop there so the movie won’t be spoiled for those of you who haven’t seen it.
One of the advantages of studying film characters is the sense of urgency with which the film makers establish those characters. A film can only be so long, so the film makers must establish what makes Rob the man he is as soon as possible in order to move along with the action. As writers, we should take note of this. Find a way to show readers who your main character is early. It’ll make each following scenes that much stronger because the audience will have a solid foundation. In Rob’s case it was his honor and love of his family/clan that drives not only his character, but the entire story forward. Our characters should be no different.
What makes Rob a memorable character? It isn’t just his honor, dignity, compassion, and love for his family/people, but how he never wavers in those traits as the plot thickens. Even though he would have benefitted from bearing false witness against the Marquis, he wouldn’t. His sense of honor wouldn’t allow it. Even after his house and land are burned to the ground, Rob sticks to his guns. How his wife, knowing Rob’s sense of honor, wouldn’t tell him about the rape because that’s what the bad guys want. They want Rob to storm the castle angrily so they can easily dispatch him. The audience wants Rob to succeed because of his unwavering honor, and because he is a virtuous man. Well that and Tim Roth plays the villain so well we’d probably root for anyone over him. I’ll put the trailer below. If you haven’t seen this movie, what are you waiting for?