The key to rich dialog is deep characters. Characters don’t need to be complicated or even flawed, but they do need to speak with their own voices. This could be the mean, gravelly bark of Eugene Pallette (ref: My Man Godfrey) or the pipsqueak whine of John Fiedler (ref: Twelve Angry Men) — both actors of dynamic range, despite their signature vocal intonations. What matters is what they say and how they say it. Secondary is the sound emitted from their vocal cords.
For the screenwriter, the ability to assume multiple personalities is a plus. You don’t need to have any sort of psychological disorder, mind you. You just need to mentally get into different characters on short notice. Good actors are experts at this skill. In fact, filling your pages with rich and nuanced dialog will make you the actor’s new best friend. It can even get your script sold.
With all that in mind, let’s look at three learnable techniques to elicit multiple personalities from the variety of characters that inhabit the world of your screenplay.
Characters in books and shows (easy)
You’ve invested time and emotion into these characters whom you’ve read about or watched with loyalty week after week. Which ones resonate with you, for better or for worse? Which ones are, in fact, inspirations for those characters that you’re attempting to develop on your own?
Books are better, especially old ones. Rich dimension enhanced by your own imagination, and unspoiled by the personal traits of an actor. Authors of yesteryear were not tied to formulaic structure that generates successive novels of declining quality. (Sorry, Danielle Steel. It had to be said.)
The more different sources, the better. Even personalities from different historical periods can work well together as long as you stay authentic in your interpretation. For instance, a flowery language may be appropriate for someone who is cultured, but beyond a certain point, the person becomes self-absorbed, haughty and pretentious. Is that your intent?
You may be attracted to the character that an actor portrays or admire mannerisms unique to the person, not the character. Since your aim is to emulate, not to copy, you can pick and choose attributes from each, if that serves your purpose. But when your Dirty Harry-like character utters “Go ahead, make my day”, it’s time to take a step back.
People you know or overhear (medium)
Find unique or memorable voices at family gatherings or in coffee shop chatter (accents, cadence, interaction). While it’s probably inappropriate to listen in on other people’s conversations, with practice, you can subconsciously pick up on variations in tone and syntax, without actually following a conversation. Of course, some people can’t help but speak way louder than they need to. Perhaps that, in itself, is a character trait.
While shuttling the late Rene Auberjonois to the set of Raising Buchanan, the actor began imitating my Bronx accent. No doubt, he might have used it for a future role, had he not been terminally ill. Or maybe force-of-habit made him subconsciously mimic me, as I often do when I hear unusual speech patterns, simply as a personal exercise.
From well-developed biographies (hard)
It’s standard practice for an ongoing series or franchise, to create a “show bible” that describes every detail of the world, the inhabitants and the trajectory of the story. This provides a tool for writers to reference when developing new scripts. It can be a daunting effort, but it’s well worth the time to immerse you in your characters.
The world within your script could be a complex universe or a cabin in the woods. With that perspective, you’ll want to contain your description to what matters to the characters — before, during and after your story is told. When your well-developed characters evolve personalities, they will speak to you automatically. You’ll hear their voices and you’ll see their actions in your head. You’re ready to insert them into the situations that test their physical and emotional boundaries.
Well-developed characters live inside good writers. You can emulate a living person or a familiar fictional character. You can model random strangers who “fit the mould”. Or you can build a character from the ground up, a product of their fictional environment. Once that living, breathing person manifests themself inside your head, your screenplay becomes a partnership between the story you want to tell and the people you have chosen to live that story.
About Joe Gruberman:
Joe Gruberman is an Arizona-based writer, educator, and award-winning multimedia producer. His latest two films, ELEVEN ELEVEN and RAISING BUCHANAN, are available on most streaming platforms.