Characters & Dialogue Tips

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A Character's Voice

The year is 1941 in Morocco. Ilse (Ingrid Bergman) is caught in a bind between her love for Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and duty to her Resistance leader husband, Victor (Paul Henreid), whom she admires and respects. How does the ultra-cool Rick express his affection for her? He says: "Here's looking at you, kid." Compare this to Victor's line: "I love you very much, my dear." Even if you've never seen Casablanca, you get a good picture of the differences between the two men.
Each character should have a distinct voice. By "voice" I don't mean only a character's accent or dialect, or whether the sound of his voice is thin, squeaky, or gruff. I also mean his personality—his character traits, and his outlook on life. Through his reactions, word choice, and speech pattern, a character's dialogue reveals where he is from, his level of education, his character, and his point of view.
Voice can be used to connect a character to others or to keep him apart. A common language will play a bigger role the closer your characters are, but for dramatic purposes, your major characters must remain distinct. Three soldiers might share certain speech patterns and use the same military jargon, for example. This connects them, identifies them as part of the same group. But they are still individuals. Maybe one is an optimistic Texan, the other a cynical New Yorker, and the third a cowardly Midwesterner. Even if characters come from the same state, same town, or the same family, their personalities will be different. They will respond differently to the same situation, choose different words, and have different speech patterns.
Let's say you have a pair of lovers you want to connect. If you rely on similar personalities or voices to accomplish this, you risk creating a superficial and boring connection rather than a compelling one of dramatic substance. Differentiate their personalities—and hence, their voices—and connect them instead through conflict. Pit one against the other or create some friction between them, and you'll have a much more dynamic scene.
Take a few pages from your screenplay and delete all speaker attributions. Then show it to a friend and ask her to determine which characters are saying each line. If she can't tell one character from the other, then you need to re-think your dialogue.


Character Traits

When developing characters, many writers draw up detailed character profiles. But a list of individual events or details about a person doesn't necessarily lead to understanding. I once dated a man for three years. Although I knew many things about him, I never fully understood him. In contrast, there have been other people in my life I understood perfectly without needing to know their every detail.

When creating characters, search for their dominant traits, not the details. "Think of people you know down to the core," says Hal Croasmun. "You can predict how they'll react to situations and you can tell when they are out of character. The core isn't a whole compilation of details. It is the part of each person that is always present."

Going back to my ex-boyfriend, one of his dominant traits was to be elusive. No matter what happened, I could never predict his reaction—other than knowing it would surprise me. One of my brother's dominant traits is he's trusting. He approaches every situation with an attitude of openness and a smile. Another of his dominant traits is self-confidence. Do you see how, together, "trusting" and "confident" already begin to paint a fuller character picture? A trusting man who isn't confident could easily be taken advantage of. But a man who's trusting because he's secure in himself is a different story.

One of my brother's details happens to be that he's a fourth-degree black belt in karate. But that detail alone doesn't make him confident. A person might acquire a high level of proficiency in karate in order to hide his insecurities without ever achieving true confidence. Details contribute to character traits or are shaded by them, but they don't define character.

If it helps you, write extensive character profiles. But keep in mind that, in the end, we know people through a few dominant traits that are revealed in everything they say and do.


Character Arc

At the beginning of the story, Little Red Riding Hood is a sweet, innocent thing. But we know that by the third act she'll be tough or she'll be toast. Her evolution is called a character arc. It's one of the most important elements of storytelling, and for a simple reason: when a character grows, we experience her change vicariously and are transformed along with her.

We get involved with a character because we want to know if his dilemma will change him. Will it force him to overcome a deep flaw (Liar, Liar), realize his potential (Rocky), or heal an emotional wound (Silence of the Lambs)? We want to see the hero grow and change, because it gives us hope for ourselves.

The character needs to be capable of change from the very beginning, otherwise the change won't ring true. Take Rocky, written by Sylvester Stallone. Rocky Balboa is an underdog. The odds are stacked against him, but he's determined. It's this quality that will help him transform from a nobody to someone who has achieved his potential. The change has to happen gradually. If it's too sudden, it will seem forced and implausible.

Another way to think of the character arc is as a map of your character's beginning, middle, and end. Your character might start off as selfish, like Jack Nicholson in As Good as it Gets (written by Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks). As the story progresses, he faces situations and conflicts that increase his self-awareness. By the end of the movie, the character has let go of his original identity and has become more generous and thoughtful.

Make sure that at least your protagonist has an arc. Depending on your story, the antagonist and some of the supporting characters might have arcs too. A character arc doesn't necessarily require improvement. If you're going for a down ending, your protagonist will change for the worse (Chinatown, Raging Bull).


Dialogue Is Not Conversation

In his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting, screenwriting expert Robert McKee states that dialogue should have "the swing of everyday talk, but content well above normal."
If I were to transcribe a conversation with my best friend and put it into a screenplay, the audience would fall asleep within seconds.
"Yeah, I might go out tonight…Dunno, maybe a movie…"
In real life, people ramble, digress, interrupt and repeat themselves. But film dialogue is clear and purposeful. Every word drives the story forward. Good dialogue conveys a maximum of meaning with a minimum of words.
Nevertheless, dialogue still needs to sound like something real people would say. Real people don't speak in full, grammatically perfect sentences or well-composed paragraphs. They use contractions. They drop words. They jump from one thought to another.
Sonny is a nervous bank robber at a bungled hold-up. He's inside the bank with several hostages and Sal, his psychopathic accomplice. Outside, the police have the place surrounded. You may recognize this scenario from Dog Day Afternoon (written by Frank Pierson) starring a young Al Pacino.
Does Sonny say, "Do you want me to give up? Look, Sal is in the back with the girls. He has his gun pointed at them. If anything should happen to me, Sal will shoot them. If you make one move, the girls will die. How can I be sure you will not jump me?"
No, of course not. This is what Sonny says:
You want me to give up, huh? Look, Sal's in back with the girls. Anything happens to me--one move--and Sal gives it to them. Boom boom. How do I know you won't jump me?

Remember, "the swing of everyday talk, but content well above normal."


Supporting Roles

Most stories have other characters besides the hero and the antagonist. These secondary characters may be part of the main storyline or they may play a role in a subplot. As interesting as these characters and their stories may be in themselves, their importance lies in how they affect the protagonist.

We all interact differently with different people in our lives. You might be lighthearted with your brother, feisty with your boss, and downright homicidal with your in-laws. Just as other people bring out different sides of your personality, supporting characters bring out different sides of the main characters. Someone has to talk sense into a stubborn protagonist, melt the heart of a tough guy, or rile the feathers of a hothead. We need other characters to push their buttons because that's what creates conflict. Will the protagonist listen to advice, let go of his fear, and embrace love? Or will he resist, fight, and end up alone? Will he overcome his flaw? Or will his flaw get the better of him? Supporting characters allow the story to ask and answer these questions.

If your heroine works double shifts to make ends meet, her boss is important so long as he either hinders or helps her cause. Let's say he keeps hitting on her until she tells him off and gets fired. Then the boss will actually have played a role in her storyline. If, however, the only reason he's there is because employees have bosses and the screenwriter thought it would add some realism to have her chit-chat about the weather with him, then he's dead weight. He should be cut. Supporting characters are meant to feed the main storyline.

The presence of secondary characters should feel organic to the whole. To be believable, they need to come across as characters in their own right without overshadowing the main characters. The more important a supporting character is, the more fully developed he will be. A major secondary character will not only have his own agenda and defining traits, but possibly his own character arc, too.


Create Roles Actors Love

Actors love well-written characters as much as audiences do. The A-list actor sees an Oscar® nomination in your accomplished drama. The budding starlet looks at your moving coming-of-age piece and sees her big break. And someone who has been typecast sees his chance to shift directions with your knee-slapping comedy.

"When actors read a script, what they're looking for is a particular moment where they really get to chew on something interesting," says director Randa Haines. "They're looking for that moment people will remember. They want a role that stimulates them and expands their range. That's true for all parts, even supporting roles and cameos."

If you want to attract actors, make every character in your script special or engaging in some way. Give each character an agenda that is related to the main storyline and doesn't detract from it. Make sure each character is memorable in some way. Maybe they use colorful language or have a quirk or a trait that stands out. A good example is Danny DeVito's character in Romancing the Stone (written by Diane Thomas). He's the bad guy's flunky, but he has a goal of his own, namely to quit while he's ahead. And he's very funny. He's a fully developed character in his own right, but his storyline is there to serve the main storyline.

A word of warning: roles that actors love aren't written specifically for them as actors, but for the archetypes they like playing: the reluctant hero (Tom Hanks), the shady shapeshifter (Jeremy Irons), the trickster (Jim Carrey), the princess, the witch, the wise old man, and so on. For that reason, your screenplays will be stronger if you keep the archetypes at the forefront rather than thinking of specific actors for specific roles.


The Function Of Dialogue

Dialogue needs to accomplish at least one, preferably more, of the following:
• further the plot
• reveal character
• create conflict
• elicit emotion
• deepen our experience of what we see on screen

In the movie Some Like it Hot, written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, Jerry (Jack Lemmon) and Joe (Tony Curtis) are down-and-out musicians who have witnessed a mob hit. Broke and desperate to get out of town alive, they masquerade as women and join a girl's band. Still awkward in their skirts and high heels, they're standing on the platform waiting for a train. Just then, band member Sugar (the ultra-feminine Marilyn Monroe) strolls by carrying her ukulele. Here's what Jerry says:
Who are we kidding? Look at that--look how she moves—-it's like Jell-O on springs. They must have some sort of a built-in motor. I tell you it's a whole different sex.

This dialogue furthers the plot by foreshadowing the trouble our heroes will have pulling off the masquerade. And, by adding nuance to the images we see on screen, it introduces us to Sugar, a major character.
It also exemplifies the conflict of men trying to pass as women, especially in the presence of someone like Sugar, and hints at the additional conflict that's sure to come when two men vie for the attention of one beautiful woman.
The line reveals character, too. We see Jerry's nervousness and his wittiness. We see he's fascinated and intimidated by Sugar.
By poking fun at sexuality and identity, this dialogue makes us laugh and sympathize with Jerry. So it elicits emotion, too.
If a line of dialogue doesn't further the plot, reveal character, create conflict, elicit emotion, or deepen our experience of what we see on screen, get rid of it. As painful as it can be, all serious writers must develop the discipline to cut any dialogue that doesn't serve the story.


Creating Heroes and Villains Audiences Love

The hero (protagonist) and the villain (antagonist) are the two most important characters in most stories. They have opposing goals and are bound through conflict. Audiences love to see them battle it out. Rooting for a hero with an uphill battle and booing the bad guy is part of the fun of going to the movies.

Protagonist: This is the hero, the main character of your story. These are the essential traits of a compelling protagonist:

• He must be active. He must drive the conflict.
• He must have a strong goal, and he must not compromise.
• He must face a series of ever-increasing obstacles, but he must have some hope of achieving his goal.
• He must be special or unique in a meaningful way
• The audience must empathize with the protagonist. They must root for him.

Remember, story is conflict. Nobody wants to watch a hero who doesn't do anything or is indecisive. Make sure he has a goal that he pursues actively. And he must earn his reward. Life shouldn't be too easy for him. "Make him suffer. Force him to claw his way out," says screenwriter Rose Gumarova. "At first I thought it was sadistic to throw my protagonist into hell. But then I realized that when I'm watching a movie, I love cheering the main character when he's fighting overwhelming opposition. As a writer, if you baby your characters you cheat your audience."

Antagonist: The antagonist wants to stop the hero. Usually the antagonist is another person, but sometimes it's a natural disaster (The Day After), an animal or a creature (Jaws), the supernatural (The Exorcist), or even the character himself battling an inner conflict (Leaving Las Vegas). Inner conflict, however, is harder to write for the beginning screenwriter. If you're starting out, build your story around a strong external conflict against a well-defined antagonist. Most antagonists are villains with an unmistakable bad side, but there are exceptions. In romantic comedies, the protagonist usually ends up marrying the antagonist! Instead of thinking of the antagonist as the bad guy, think of him, her, or it as the main source of opposition to the protagonist.

If the protagonist could easily beat the antagonist, there would be no story. No matter how strong the protagonist is, the antagonist must start out stronger, with his own goal that he pursues as rigorously as the protagonist does his. Develop your antagonist with the same care you devote to your protagonist. Both actors and audiences love a great antagonist. The best villains (Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, The Joker) are as complex and interesting as the hero.


Text And Subtext

When my best friend and I talk about our plans for the day, we aren't engaged in serious information exchange. We're more like two birds chirping to each other. Underneath our insignificant words, the real message is: "I care about you. I'm interested in your life." The words are the text, but the meaning, carried by what we're NOT saying, is the subtext. This is how we build relationships in real life. The same concept makes for powerful film dialogue.
The more secure we feel in a relationship, the more likely we are to come out and say what we mean outright. But when things get emotionally risky, we hide our true wants and needs within the subtext. Your characters should do the same. Let's look at some examples.
In this scene from Thelma and Louise, the girls are on the run from the law. Louise is studying a map to find the quickest way to Mexico. It's through Texas, but Louise refuses to take that route. When Thelma asks point blank what happened in Texas, this is how Louise responds:

I just don't think it's the place I wanna get caught for doin' something like...if you blow a guy's head off with his pants down, believe me, Texas is the last place you wanna get caught!

Whatever happened to Louise in Texas is too painful to talk about, so she avoids answering directly.

Here's an example from American Beauty, written by Alan Ball. Lester (Kevin Spacey) and Carolyn's (Annette Benning) marriage is in trouble. They're on the couch. Lester is drinking a beer. He's frustrated with the materialistic, joyless woman his wife has become. She's furious with him for upsetting her carefully orchestrated balance. He tries to reach the woman she used to be by reminiscing about their early days. She wants to resist but is feeling drawn to the image he paints. They lean toward each other. Will she enter the relationship? Or will she pull away? Just before their lips meet, she says:

Lester. You're going to spill beer on the couch.

Seemingly banal, her line reveals how ambivalent she really feels about reconnecting with her husband.

There are times characters say exactly what they mean, such as at a breaking point moment where the tension finally peaks. If you've done the groundwork and set up the moment, it will seem totally natural, as if the characters can no longer hold back. They've tried to deny the truth, to hide it, or to hint at it—but now they spell it out. At such moments, text and subtext converge.

Use subtext to add layers of meaning, your script will have forward motion, and your characters will always be well-rounded individuals who beg to leap off the page and onto the screen.


Talking Heads

One of the biggest mistakes beginning writers make is writing scenes where the characters talk about things that happened rather than showing us the events themselves. Some golden rules of writing merit repetition: show, don't tell!

Avoid talking head scenes by putting your characters in action. If your hero goes to a party, show us the party, not him discussing it over lunch with his friends. If your heroine has a humiliating blind date, show us the date, not the heroine complaining to her girlfriend on the phone. It's okay to have her talk to her girlfriend after the date, but have her say something that gives us new information or subtly shades what we've already seen, like this example from Thelma and Louise.

In a previous scene, we saw J.D. (Brad Pitt) seduce Thelma in a motel room. The following morning, Thelma meets Louise for breakfast. Here's what she tells her best girlfriend about the wild night she spent:

Oh my God, Louise!!! I can't believe it! I just really can't believe it! I mean... whoa! I mean I finally understand what all the fuss is about. This is just a whole 'nother ball game!

Notice there's no lengthy description, just how Thelma feels, which adds nuance to what we've already seen.

Strengthen your writing by eliminating talking heads scenes and making every word of your dialogue count.


What People Say: Dialogue

We've talked a lot about who characters are and what characters do, but what about what characters say? Let's turn our focus now to dialogue.

If you're a movie buff, you'll recognize these lines of dialogue:
"I'll make him an offer he can't refuse."
"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."
"May the Force be with you."
The Godfather, Gone with the Wind, and Star Wars gave us phrases that have entered our collective psyche. Because we love quoting our favorite films, it's tempting to think that good dialogue is the most important part of a movie. But film is a visual medium. As important as good dialogue is to our understanding and enjoyment of the movie, those lines don't stand alone. What we see gives life to what we hear.
I spent several years translating scripts and subtitling films for German companies. The production was sometimes so far behind schedule that I was asked to work from a computer print-out alone. This was one of the most difficult parts of the job. Without the visuals, the dialogue to a movie I had never seen made no sense. I tried to visualize the movie as I worked, but later, when I watched the video, I was always amazed at how wrong I'd been. My experience taught me that dialogue serves the story and not the other way around.
So how does a screenwriter write memorable dialogue that serves the story? By understanding what film dialogue is and isn't.

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