Writing Someone You Are Not

By September 21, 2014Screenwriting 101

Unless you’re only writing autobiographical screenplays, you won’t be writing about yourself or characters that are just like you very often. Writers mostly write for characters in voices that differ from their own. They create scenes and schemes that contain a slew of voices. So how do so many writers come up with dialogue for different characters that distinguishes them from each other, when the characters they create do not speak or act like the writer?

They research.

Living in society, for starters, teaches a writer how different people speak. A writer may not be a singer posing as a nun hiding in an urban convent, but they may have grown up around nuns or lounge singers and, therefore, have those characters’ voices ringing in their heads as clear as church bells. We all know people who speak in ways that do not mirror our own speech and behave differently. Instead of only coming to conclusions about people who are different, draw from them and their behavior.

Writers do character studies. The same way Jaime Foxx watched hours of Ray Charles footage to prep for his Academy Award-winning role, writers who didn’t get the chance to spend time with the subject they plan to pen watch footage and read literature on the figures they want to create. Writers can even create fictional characters based on actual people by researching those people, or people like them. If I wanted to write a screenplay about Abraham Lincoln and his presidency, I could read up on Lincoln or read up on other political figures who were in office in his day, to get a good idea of how the people of that time spoke, rationalized ideas, and conducted business. It’s a bit easier to create the voice for a character in a screenplay you’re writing when there is ample literature on them. But when creating a new character or one who hasn’t been so heavily documented, a writer has to resort to other methods in order to execute an engaging voice in their screenplay.

Observe how other writers create compelling characters. I’ve said in other articles that we as writers should read as many good screenplays as we can in order to get a sense of great writing, pacing, and character development. You may have an idea of who you’d like to put into your screenplay but aren’t sure how to put them into the mix. Reading quality screenplays is a good way to do it. You’ll see how characters are introduced and how they stay in the plot. When a writer has an interesting character sparsely say or do things, it makes the reader or the viewer want to see more of them. By borrowing methods of establishing intriguing voices in scripts from good writers, you can figure out how to write your own bold characters in captivating ways.

If all other methods of writing unique characters aren’t working, have your characters do the opposite of what you would do in cinematic situations. If you’re shaping a script where you’ve effortlessly fleshed out the heroic protagonist, their faithful sidekick, and the distressed characters the hero has to save, but you’re having trouble coming up with a plausible villain, make them the polar opposite of the hero and have them do things contrary to your nature. Use the fact that you might be a goody two-shoes to your advantage. The antagonist is supposed to be the direct opposition to the protagonist and their goals regardless, so it makes sense to give them a voice that goes against the hero’s, which just so happens to be the voice that came so naturally to you. Create bad by being good, and then doing the reverse.

It’s very difficult to pull off a well-structured screenplay. Characters make up the story and are what draw us to many of our favorite films. It’s ok to have a hard time figuring out how to voice certain character you are nothing like. But if you do, think of people you’ve met and know, research characters, or even have the character that is difficult for you to write do and say the opposite of the character you know in and out.