What’s really meant by the ubiquitous advice to “give each character a voice” when it comes to screenplay dialogue?
Here’s a good way to get to grips with the concept: have a think about all the people you know and fictional characters you feel like you know in films. Start by thinking about all the members of your family, your friends and work colleagues. Now think about all the strangers you’ve met recently: the cab driver, teenage store clerk, teacher and so on.
Finally, have a think about some protagonists from a few movies of your favorite movies: Sally Albright from When Harry Met Sally, Dirk Diggler from Boogie Nights, Whip Whitaker from Flight, or whoever they may be.
Now take a moment to consider just how different everyone’s speech is, whether real or imaginary. Note how the way each person or character talks is defined by who they are: their experiences in life, personality, background, culture, profession, likes, dislikes and general outlook on the world.
All of this comes together to make their words a reflection of what’s important to them. In other words, it becomes their “voice.”
Take a look at the dialogue-heavy opening to the movie, Saw. Here are two men of similar ages and in the same situation, and yet they have very different voices when it comes to their dialogue. This is because they have different views on the world, backgrounds, professions and ways of reacting to things. Consequently, they speak differently too. And then Jigsaw turns up and he speaks completely differently as well—choosing his words in a very careful and calculated manner.
Every single character in your script should be defined in this way also. However, characters end up all sounding the same in a screenplay when the writer just gives them whatever dialogue they think they would say in the moment, without giving much thought to who they actually are and what’s important to them.
The skill in writing killer dialogue, though, comes from finding your characters’ voices within how they say and react to things in a certain way. You want to raise your dialogue to the level where, if each of your characters were sat down in front of a camera and asked to give their opinion on, say, religion, they’d each answer in a completely different way.
So, what’s the easiest way to achieve this?
Get To REALLY Know Your Characters
The first thing you need to do is go through each characters’ age, profession and background and make sure it really comes across in how they speak. How old are they? When we’re sixty-four we tend to talk in a very different way to when we’re twenty-four. Are your characters ages reflected in how they speak?
Then ask yourself what each characters’ job is and how much you know about it. How do people in their line of work generally talk? A New York cop, for example, should generally use a far more coarse and direct style of communication than a Californian yoga instructor.
Finally, what was their upbringing? Were they fending for themselves much of the time on the streets, or being pushed through an exclusive school by domineering parents. Again, all of this will feed into how they talk in the present day.
The next area to consider when giving each character a “voice” are their likes, dislikes and outlook on the world. Similarly, this requires taking each character in turn and considering what’s most important to each one. If they had to answer the question of what keeps them awake at night, what would they say?
Are they the type of character whose idea of a perfect weekend is going kayaking down a river, or staying indoors watching wrestling? All of this should play into how they speak.
Once you have a good handle on each character’s inner life, it’s then just a case of doing a dialogue pass on the script and rewriting it to ensure every characters’ words properly reflect what’s important to them in the story and in life in general. Highlight each characters’ name using Cmd + F and check their dialogue remains true to their personality all the way through the screenplay.
Focus on what they choose to talk about, what they dwell on and how they react in different situations. Once each character is doing this in a different way from every other character, their individual personalities will begin to shine through.
A Practical Exercise
You may be able to accurately imagine how a soccer mom, shop assistant or teacher talks because you probably come into contact with these kinds of people all the time. But what about FBI agents, pole dancers, professional skateboarders or Russian hitmen? Chances are you’ll have less contact with the second group, and so here’s where some in-field research comes in handy.
If one of your main characters is a professor of ethics at NYU, do some investigating to find out how professors actually talk. If you can’t get ready access to a skatepark to hang around and eavesdrop, or don’t particularly feel like flying to Moscow to hang out with the Russian mafia, watch videos about them on YouTube. Read interviews. Immerse yourself in the language of the Los Angeles skate scene or the Russian underworld and you’ll make not only make your characters’ dialogue 100 percent more believable, but their personalities overall.
Alex Bloom is the founder of Script Reader Pro, a screenplay consultancy based in LA made up of working screenwriters and filmmakers. To learn more about how to write convincing dialogue check out Script Reader Pro’s latest book, “Master Screenplay Dialogue: The Ultimate Practical Guide On How To Write Dialogue Like The Pros.”