HUMANS ARE ALWAYS WEIRDER
I was in semi-rural Ohio, getting ready to cast a horror movie I had written and was about to direct. While setting up, I had a moment to speak to the caretaker of the building. He was an older guy with a big white beard, dressed for manual work: denim coveralls, muddy boots, trucker cap.
I explained what we were doing. The caretaker asked me for the title of the movie, and I told him it’s called DEATH METAL. “Death metal?” he asked. “Do you mean something like Belphegor?”
Belphegor is an Austrian blackened-death metal band I happen to hold in high esteem. Naturally, I was a little floored to hear this guy in this situation bring up Belphegor. But it turned out the caretaker’s son was into extreme music. He pulled out his phone and showed me a picture of his son at a Belphegor show.
Here’s why I’m bringing up this anecdote: Imagine this same guy and same situation as a character in a screenplay. There is a 99% chance that the screenplay character version would hear the words “death metal” and respond with something like, “What in tarnation? I don’t know nothin’ about this new-fangled the kids are listening to these days. Why can’t ya just listen to country-western?” And then he’d spit tobacco, etc.
Because in the vast majority of screenplays, the writers settle for the easiest, most familiar and obvious choice. Big white beard – coveralls – muddy boots – caretaker – rural area – GOT IT. The writers don’t think past the surface level assumption, the stereotype. They aren’t assigning a reality, past, or inner life to the characters. They aren’t thinking; they’re settling. And settling isn’t the path to the strongest writing.
Here's another example: One time I was hanging around the gate at an airport, waiting for the flight to arrive. A middle-aged woman was standing nearby; she was in the midst of a gossipy conversation with a friend. Having nothing better to do, I eavesdropped.
Okay, now stop and ask: What is this woman in this situationgossiping about? What’s your first assumption? If you were reading this as a character in a screenplay, what kind of dialogue are we almost sure to get on the page?
In reality, they were discussing how best to broach to a mutual friend the idea that her house might need an exorcism. They were convinced there was a demon in the mutual friend’s house. But how does one bring that up in a polite manner so as not to offend?
The point is: In real life, people are often weirder than surface-level stereotypes would suggest. It goes without saying that stereotypical characters and cliché dialogue are to be avoided. But why? Because while there is such a thing as truism in generalities, humans aren’t characters in a script. To bring life to our characters, we must understand that humans are almost always weirder than stereotypes can account for, and certainly more interesting.