We are full of paradoxes. We only love to the extent that we hate. We are constantly changing our minds, constantly renegotiating with ourselves and others. To be specific is to be curious about the truth of the human condition. In Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, he talks about how we have a tendency to want to categorize people. Bill is honest. Jack is a liar. This makes us feel secure, as if the world were not more chaotic, ambiguous, and dangerous. This is not the case. Human beings respond based on a multitude of stimuli. Depending on a given situation, we can be honest or dishonest, serious or silly, horny or chaste, stubborn or flexible.

We respond situationally.

When we get specific with our characters our writing comes alive, and we often discover something about our nature that we had been avoiding. Part of the thrill of writing lies in upending long-held beliefs. When an image comes to us, rather than rushing to judgment with “my character would never say or do that,” instead ask yourself, “under what conditions might my character be compelled to behave in such a way?” Every image or idea comes to us for a reason. It is simply our job to be curious. Whatever you believe about a character, be curious about its opposite. Find where that aspect lives in them as well.

You will discover that in every story your hero and antagonist both want the same thing. In the movie SE7EN, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey both want a better world. In One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, McMurphy and Nurse Ratched both want life to be comfortable and easy. These characters are all seeking to fulfill the same desire, but they approach the world, their perception of the human animal, in distinctly different ways.

The battle is ultimately over an idea. Cuckoo’s Nest questions the idea of conformity, while Se7en questions the idea of humanity’s essential goodness. The writer’s job is to track the beats in a believable way that leads to a transformation. This means being curious and specific about the world of these people. It is within these beats that we can discover electrifying truths. Specificity is the cradle of great writing. When the writer is courageous enough to hold the tension of ambiguity and be curious about the thin line between love and hate, valor and cowardice, humility and pride, he will naturally be led to deeper truths about his characters. It is under the stressful conditions of the story that character is revealed, and it is within those specific moments of decision that the writer has an opportunity to explore his characters, to be willing to ask, “what if?” Just for the hell of it . . . what if my character went this way?

Getting specific is all about rewriting. It means going into the scene and looking for the wrinkles. Once you know the basic arc of the scene, what else can you find when you explore the basic tension? This adds depth and complexity to your story, gives it the stink of realism. We feel like we are there, like we are witnesses. The specific writer is willing to put his curiosity before his fear that the story will fall apart. Let your characters dazzle and surprise you, and then just run behind them with a spyglass and a bucket of words, finding evidence to support their decisions.

When you feel like a character isn’t working, do you have any tricks or tools to bring them to life?