A Character's Voice

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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.



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