What Bruno and Sacha Baron Cohen Teach Us about Character Development

Let’s imagine that Sasha Baron Cohen decided to write a movie about an Austrian who comes to America to become famous. He begins at birth and tells a chronological story of how this person went about achieving his dream. That was basically the plot for the 2006 movie Akeelah and the Bee if you substitute “Austrian” and “fame” with “young, urban girl” and “winning the spelling bee.” It’s also the plot of the Rainn Wilson film, The Rocker, which was unfortunately just about as funny. As much as we all love a Cinderella story, we’ve seen it, the DVD extras, and the uncut director’s version about a million times. So how did Sasha Baron Cohen strike cinematic gold with a plot we already know and has been done time and again?

It tends to be true of human nature that people care less what happens if they don’t care who it’s happening to. We tend to be intimately interested in even the most trivial drama of our own lives, people who are close to us, and celebrities who we like to imagine that we know better than we do. It is the person, not the event, that engages us in the story.
 
Let’s bring this back to a more literary example. In Norman Mailer’s The Naked and Dead, he focuses on the 112th Cavalry Regiment marching in the Philippines during World War II. There is a recurring visual metaphor in the book that compares the march of the soldiers to ants marching up a mound. In a row of ants, does any one individual matter? It is not until Mailer focuses the lens in his vignettes that we learn about each soldier and their deaths become tragic. Although Life is Beautiful, Schindler’s List, and The Diary of Anne Frank are also stories that take place in World War II, no one faults them for being redundant. The focus is not the time period or event; it’s clearly on the person.
 
So use this as a test when you think you have a good idea for a story. Rather than saying “I want to write a story about life in Afghanistan, say “I wonder what would happen to a young girl with no family in Afghanistan.” In one scenario you have written a reference to history, in the other you have written a novel called A Thousand Splendid Suns, which spent over two years on the bestseller list. As Bruno would tell you, trying to get people to care about a plot is a huge nish-nish; getting people to care about a person is totally ach ya!
 
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