The difference between a generic, lifeless character and one that seems alive is the level of specificity in how the writer portrays the character.
A character who says or does cliche, generic things will feel written and fake, whereas a character who says and does very specific things will seem real.
In his book The Idea: The Seven Elements of a Viable Story for Screen, Stage, or Fiction, television writer Erik Bork notes just how challenging this kind of specificity is: “It’s not easy to create people that seem so specific and real. It’s much easier to create characters who are vague types . . .”
But Bork argues that achieving such specificity is worth the effort: “One of the keys to writing something that gets noticed, and can advance a career, is to achieve a level of detailed specific realness that wows people as authentic and original . . .”
In screenwriting, because feature scripts are so short compared to novels, writers often achieve this specificity with one or two impressionistic details that imply a fully formed person. Below are several movie examples of the level of specificity writers should aim for in quickly conveying a character.
Although the writers established these characters in the first movie, Spiderman: Homecoming, the writers do a great job of reminding the audience in this sequel of each character’s essential nature.
M.J., in particular, stands out. The writers capture her off-kilter, slightly dark sensibilities with the below exchange in Venice, which is super specific because it focuses on an obscure Italian word few of us would know:
MJ: Boh, the most perfect word in the world. The Italians created it, and I discovered it.
Peter: What does it mean?
MJ: That’s the thing; it can mean a million things. It can mean I don’t know, get out of my face, I don’t know and get out of my face. It’s the best thing Italy ever created besides maybe espresso. Boh is my new superpower. It’s like the anti-aloha. I was born to say this word.
(Re: the bag Peter is carrying, which contains a necklace Peter has purchased for MJ)
So what’s in the bag?
Peter: Oh, uh, boh!
What’s the most generic, cliche way to portray depression in a character? Excessive drinking.
Having a character drink too much to show that he or she is depressed is a sure way to make your character feel written and generic.
Instead of resorting to this cliche, the writer of Collateral Beauty makes a very different and super-specific choice to show that Howard is depressed:
Howard spends most of his time alone building very elaborate domino creations.
This is a great example of conveying character through action alone.
The reason Howard builds dominoes to express his depression is also revealed late in the movie, further adding to the specificity of this choice.
There are any number of specific moments I could choose from this movie, but here’s a great one that captures Mile’s super-specific self-assessment. Because Miles is a writer, the poetic lines below from him feel plausible and not “written”:
Miles: Half my life is over, and I have nothing to show for it. Nothing. I’m a thumbprint on the window of a skyscraper. I’m a smudge of excrement on a tissue surging out to sea with a million tons of raw sewage.
Who but a failed novelist character could come up with such poetic and dark metaphors for his life?
The scene continues below with a joke:
Jack: See? Right there. Just what you just said. That is beautiful. ‘A smudge of excrement . . . surging out to sea.’
Jack: I could never write that.
Miles: Neither could I, actually. I think it’s Bukowski.
Do you remember the Batman movies before Christopher Nolan? The character of Alfred in them was little more than a forgettable and generic butler.
But the Nolan movies make Alfred much more specific–and therefore memorable. The below speech from Alfred serves double duty. Not only does it make Alfred feel alive to the audience, but it serves to help Bruce–and the audience–understand the Joker.
Alfred: With respect Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man that you don’t fully understand, either.
A long time ago, I was in Burma. My friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So, we went looking for the stones. But in six months, we never met anybody who traded with him. One day, I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.
Bruce Wayne: So why steal them?
Alfred: Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.
Look at all the little specific touches in Alfred’s story: an old job working for the local Burmese government, a scheme to bribe tribal leaders, Rangoon, a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine, etc. All of these small details make us see Alfred as real, as fully fleshed out. Who else, but a real person, could tell such a specific story?
This is another movie that I could pull many examples from, but I’ll focus on how the writer makes Jacob seem alive through the specificity of the below sequences in which Jacob has strong reactions to Cal’s fashion choices:
Kevin Hart’s character Dell comes alive with the below very specific speech about his father:
Dell: I ain’t never seen him, though. Unless you wanna count the time we spent together in lockup. We was in prison together. Sweet, right? You know what he said when he saw me, man? He said, “welcome home.” Can you imagine saying some shit like that to your kid? “Welcome home.”
Of course, the principle of being specific doesn’t just help with your characters; specificity in all writing choices, including the plot, will elevate your material and make it stand out.
In short, make specificity your new superpower.
Actually, a couple more things before you leave:
I don’t recommend many books on story, but Erik Bork’s The Idea: The Seven Elements of a Viable Story for Screen, Stage, or Fiction is definitely worth a read.
The chapter on how a story should be life altering is particularly helpful for those who struggle with the issue of stakes. I also like that the book doesn’t shackle the reader with any rules, instead arguing why certain choices tend to be strong and work well.
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