Thursday, February 10, 2011

How to Create a Compelling Character, Step 3: Choose A Metaphor Family

So far I’ve focused on how to make characters compelling through behavior, but, alas, eventually they have to open their mouths, too. Pre-determining how a character will talk is so hard that it’s tempting to simply wait until they “speak to you”, but this will often result in bland, generic dialogue—where everybody sounds the same. You need a separate controlling idea for how each character will speak.

First and foremost, of course, you can cheat. Give a character the voice of a close friend or family member, or of a person in the news, or even the general persona of another movie star. It’s better than nothing to simply declare that your character will talk like Woody Allen, or Vince Vaughn, or Bette Davis. Anyone whose persona you can channel is fair game. The audience usually won’t notice...

...But if you don’t want to cheat, there are ways to craft a new, unique idiom. Start with a few rules. Do they talk a lot or a little? Use complete sentences or not? Are they self-aware or oblivious? Lay these rules down and stick to them. Eventually an oblivious character can reveal an unsuspected self-awareness, for instance, but never be in a hurry to surprise the audience. Let them act dependably for as long as possible, and only reverse our expectations when we least expect it.
The biggest mistake is to wait until you have quieter “character scenes” to reveal all your finely-wrought character work. Then, when the plot kicks into high gear, all of that work suddenly vanishes. “There’s no time for all that personality-stuff now, we’ve got important things to talk about!” All characters become indistinguishable, reacting the way “anybody” would in a crisis.

But personality is not a luxury that we shed in times of stress. It’s vital to determine a governing rule that determines a character’s language even in extreme situations—especially in extreme situations. Which brings me to my favorite new technique: giving every character their own metaphor family. This can be a “go to” source for every swear word they mutter, every compliment they give out, every daydream they indulge in, etc. Sometimes their metaphor family is based on their job, but it can also be based on their cultural background or their psychology...

Let’s start with real life. On a normal news day, Dan Rather used the same stentorian language as any other news anchor. But when things got crazy, his language totally transformed. Anyone watching his reaction to the 2000 election night crisis is still trying to pick their jaw up off the floor. Dan revealed his unique metaphor family: rural Texas. This didn’t happen because things slowed down and we got a chance to ask him about his background, this happened because things sped up too fast for him to watch himself. That’s what makes this a great way for writers to reveal character in moments of crisis.

The sitcom “30 Rock” shows many different versions of this concept. Jack’s metaphor family is straightforward: corporate-ese (but the bizarre and vaguely new-agey language of modern management techniques). That’s okay, because he’s the only “suit” on the show. The others, however, are all creative types, and they can’t all talk alike, so they have non-job-based sources for their metaphor families. Tracy and Kenneth’s reflect where they’re from: the inner city and rural Georgia, respectively. (Even Jack occasionally lapses into his fall-back persona: Boston Catholic) Liz, on the other hand, has a metaphor family drawn from her psychology: the language of adolescence (“Blurg!”, “I want to go to there!”), a state she is always trying and failing to move beyond.
Now that you’ve got a way to determine their language, you’re halfway to crafting a consistent, unique, and entertaining voice. Well talk about the other half next...


Dave M said...

I don't get why this is called metaphor family.

Matt Bird said...

The point is that every time a character compares anything to anything else (you kiss like a [blank], I'm angrier than a [blank]), then all of those references should be linked to the most dominant aspect of their bio... either where they're from or what their job is or what their maturity level is. Since all of the metaphorical comparisons a character uses are linked, that linkage becomes their "metaphor family".

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering... can a character have a.. poetic voice? like, not linked to any geographical area. a "deep and meditative" voice perhaps?

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