How To Stop Your Characters' Dialogue From All Sounding The Same
By Alex Bloom | 07-Apr-2016
Aspiring screenwriters are often told that all their characters sound the same. The grandma sounds the same as the teenager. The professor sounds the same as the stripper, etc. The advice generally given to remedy this problem is to: "Give each character a unique voice, speech patterns, inflections, and vocab," and / or, "Give each one a favorite subject they always reference." There are also a few practical exercises designed to help this, such as, "Cover up the names to see how easy it is to tell who's speaking," and, "Go out and secretly record the flow of how people speak in real life."
Writers will then spend a day or two hanging around Starbucks eavesdropping on some random conversations (all the while wondering what they're supposed to be listening for). Then they'll go home and add an idiosyncratic lisp to one character's dialogue, a fondness for burping to another's, and a constant reference to Nicholas Cage movies to another's. None of which gets them very far because the real reason all their characters sound the same is that they haven't yet figured out who each character really is.
What differentiates most character's dialogue is not how they speak - quickly, slowly, with a lisp, a drawl, a stutter, etc. - but what they say and the attitude behind it. If you go ahead and cover up the names for Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha in a Sex and the City script, can you really tell who's speaking by their different dialogue patterns and "flow"? No. They're all successful women living in New York of around the same age and without any noticeable speech impediments. But, you can tell whose dialogue is whose by what they say and the attitude that comes out through their words.
Here's a practical, two-part exercise that will help you give all your characters and individual voice.
Part 1: Get To REALLY Know Your Characters
By this I mean, it's very important that you get to know each character on a much deeper level than you do already. Start by making a list of all the major and minor characters in your screenplay, and then, underneath each name, write down what their visible, obvious personality traits are. Once you have your list, it's then a question of making sure that each character consistently expresses these elements - their brashness, diffidence, prudence, sexuality, intelligence, dumbness, etc. - through what they say.
Focus on what they choose to talk about, what they dwell on, and how they react verbally 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. In later drafts, you can also highlight each character's name using Cmd + F (Apple users) / Ctrl + F (PC users) and check their dialogue remains true to their personality all the way through the screenplay.
Part 2: In-Field Research
A screenwriter may be able to accurately imagine how their single dad, teenage girl, shop assistant, teacher characters talk because they come into contact with these kind of people all the time. But what about FBI agents, pole dancers, professional skateboarders, or Russian hitmen? Chances are that most screenwriters will have less contact with the second group and so here's where some in-field research could come 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. Read novels. Immerse yourself in the language of the Los Angeles skate scene, or the Russian underworld and you'll make not only make your character's dialogue 100% more believable, but their character overall.
Alex Bloom is the founder of Script Reader Pro - a screenplay consultancy made up of working Hollywood writers, speakers, and consultants. They have also produced a practical, hands-on screenwriting course, and book on screenwriting structure using sequences.