Holy shit. I just happened to watch “The Conversation” last night (1974). I hardly ever watch broadcast TV, but it was on in the common room, and I caught the opening scene. Instantly hooked, I watched one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.
These days, a “conspiracy thriller” would consist of:
- Hunky or beautiful lead who is clearly on the side of “good,” or thinks he/she is. Either a weathered, fresh-faced, or beaten-down male, or an impossibly beautiful, strong, and (of course) tough-as-nails female.
- Constant jeopardy, such as people breaking through high-rise windows with grenades, snipers with laser targeting, etc.
- Clues would have to be pieced together as the lead is constantly on the run, stopping only for Hollywood Sex.
I’m not saying that stuff isn’t entertaining. I’ve gone to my fair share of American action movies — and to be fair, the “conspiracy thriller” tends to be a lot more story-driven than normal action movies. But clearly, there’s a formula that works, and people largely go with it. Even if a movie is adapted from a book, you can tell it’s usually been Hollywoodized (you know it when you see it.)
But The Conversation is different.
Harry Caul, the main character, isn’t hunky or beautiful, but a neurotic and unfashionable middle-aged professional wiretapper. He’s not threatened by “bad guys;” his problems are all caused by his own character flaws, and there are many. The director (Coppola) didn’t rely on the easy trick of hiring a good-looking actor to create sympathy for Harry.
Instead, he worked hard at real character design. And Coppola went all the way with it. Harry’s character is carried out all the way through to the extreme, even when it makes him unlikeable and unattractive. For example:
- Harry is a professional snooper. The logical extension of this is his constant fear of being bugged, himself, and his inability to trust anyone. It follows that he is a socially-awkward loner who has trouble with friendships or intimacy. Here’s the extreme: he wears a plastic raincoat everywhere, even when it’s not raining.
- His professional code is to not get personally or morally involved, but one of his past assignments led to innocent people being killed; naturally, he can’t help but feel guilty, but it doesn’t stop there. He is a devout Catholic — extreme guilt! If I were constructing this character, I would shy away from making him Catholic. It would just seem like “too much.” But it’s one of the points that makes this character strong — despite his professional code, I find it perfectly believable that Catholic guilt trumps it.
- “Another trait of Harry’s that is brilliantly and economically portrayed through sound is his musicianship. At several points in the movie, Harry puts on a jazz record and plays saxophone accompaniment to it. This is a perfect symbol for his willingness to belong to society and inability to commit to it, fearing that his identity will be compromised if it is revealed. Harry is not strictly composing, he is jamming in the jazz tradition–letting the works of others define himself within a group, and not on his own terms. And yet, he isn’t able to jam with other musicians. The closest he wishes to come to humanity is a recording of it.” (from Walter on Everything2.)
What I learned as an adult fiction writer from The Conversation.
If I’d been constructing this character on paper, I would be tempted to scrap it! The “character rules” would be much too clear and obvious, not realistic enough. I’d find myself thinking, “a real person would never do that… it’s not believable… it’s too extreme.” But of course Harry Caul is not realistic — he’s a character, and characters are tidier and more extreme than real people. Their motivations are supposed to be much clearer than real people’s motivations.
To me, it seems devicey and trite to say, “Oh, he’s haunted by the past,” but that’s because a Tragic Past usually is a transparent device meant to elicit pity for the character. In this case, Coppola constructed a believable and traumatic event specifically for Harry — something that was convincingly meaningful for him, rather than a generic sympathy-getting dramatic device (such as a lover’s betrayal or child’s death.) Not only did it gain the audience’s sympathy for an otherwise-repellent character, it served as a good motivating force for Harry.
Why you may not like to write extreme characters.
I know from experience, it can be disturbing to work with an extreme character. Personality extremes often make people uncomfortable because they’re out of bounds socially: extreme jealousy, extreme passion, extreme attention to detail, etc. It can make writers uncomfortable to mentally act out a character with extreme traits.
For adult fiction in particular, the leads are supposed to be attractive. It may be hard to write an extreme trait because that intensity is often unattractive, at least in real life. It can make you face hard choices, but usually, that’s what makes stories shine.
Going “all the way” might be exactly what you need to do to make your character memorable, and your story more dramatic. While Harry Caul is an unrealistic, unlikeable character in real life, he integrated perfectly in Coppola’s story world.
But think about the characters you like and remember. What’s extreme about them? I have my own examples, but I’d much rather hear from you.