Predetermining how a character will speak is one of the hardest parts of the job. In fact, it’s so hard that it’s tempting to simply wait until your characters “talk to you,” but this will often result in bland, generic dialogue. You need a separate controlling idea for how each character will speak.
You can simply base your characters on friends and family, but you quickly run into a problem: Your friends and family don’t have enough personality. When trouble comes, such characters tend to run and hide instead of acting out like a bigger-than-life character.
One shortcut I like to use is to combine the personality of a friend with the persona of an actor. For instance, as we saw before, Danny McBride created his character in The Foot Fist Way by combining the Tae Kwon Do instructors he knew with Ricky Gervais’s persona from The Office, and funny dialogue started flowing.
For minor characters, it’s better than nothing to simply declare your character will talk like Woody Allen, Vince Vaughn, or Bette Davis. Anyone whose persona you can channel is fair game. The audience usually won’t notice. But starting with a derivative voice will only get you so far. Ultimately, you need to be able to create a new voice from scratch, and there are ways to do so.
Start with a few rules. Does the character talk a lot or a little? Use complete sentences or fragments? Is the character self-aware or oblivious? Lay down these rules and stick to them. Eventually, an oblivious character can reveal an unsuspected self-awareness, of course, but never be in a hurry to surprise the audience. Let the character act dependably for as long as possible, and only reverse expectations when the audience least expects 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!” Your characters suddenly become indistinguishable, reacting the way anybody would in a crisis.
But personality is not a luxury we shed in times of stress. It’s vital to find a governing rule that determines a character’s language even in extreme situations—especially in extreme situations. This is why your characters each need to have 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 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 transformed. Those of us who watched his reaction to the 2000 election night crisis are still trying to pick up our jaws off the floor. Dan revealed his unique metaphor family: rural Texas.
- It's too early to say he has the whip hand.
- Don't bet the trailer money yet.
- This race is as tight as the rusted lug nuts on a ’55 Ford.
- You talk about a ding-dong, knock-down, get-up race. ...
- The presidential race is still hotter than a Laredo parking lot.
The sitcom 30 Rock exemplifies the three most common types of metaphor families:
- Jack’s metaphor family is based on employment: He speaks corporate-ese (albeit 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's and Kenneth’s reflect each character’s home region: 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. She employs the language of adolescence (“I want to go to there,” “Blurg!”), a state she’s always trying and failing to move beyond.
- It can reveal a totally surprising side of someone's personality. Lily on How I Met Your Mother is a sweet Caucasian kindergarten teacher, but when push comes to shove, her metaphor family sometimes becomes hip-hop, which always gets a nice laugh.
- It can be based on the character’s ambition. Gareth on the U.K. version of The Office is a paper salesman who speaks like a military commander, which tells us everything we need to know.
Rulebook Casefile: The Value of a Counterintuitive Metaphor Family in Star Wars
An unexpected metaphor family can be a great way to add complexity to a character. It’s fine to simply draw a character’s metaphor family from the role they play in the narrative (the cop can’t stop using cop lingo at home, the doctor sees everything in medical terms) but sometimes it’s more interesting to skip over the obvious choice and choose a metaphor family that subtly highlights a suppressed aspect of a hero’s personality.
Obi Wan in Star Wars is a great example. His role in the story at first seems to be that of “jolly old elf” / hermit / wizard, and that’s all true, but none of these labels determine his metaphor family. His language reveals that all of those roles are somewhat of an affectation hiding what Obi Wan really is: a general.
- One of his first lines could come out of the mouth of Patton: “Quickly, son, they’re on the move.”
- When he gives Luke an emblem of his religion, he gives him, of all things, a laser-sword, and he praises it by pointing out that it has superior target accuracy to a laser-gun: “This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or as random as a blaster.”
- Later his concern with weapon accuracy continues: “Sand People always ride single file to hide their numbers. And these blast points, too accurate for Sand People. Only Imperial stormtroopers are so precise.”
- And there’s plenty more general-speak… “But it also obeys your commands” “In my experience, there’s no such thing as luck.” “No, it’s a short range fighter.” It’s not just a matter of his knowledge-set, his word choice is inherently militaristic: referring to their “numbers”, “blast points”, etc.
Rulebook Casefile: Un-Racist Writing and Metaphor Families in “The Wire”
Like a lot of writers, I saw “The Wire” and thought, “I’d love to write something like that!” So I wrote a script about a loose cannon white cop causing havoc in a housing project. The script was “progressive” in that, in the end, the white cop was the victimizer and the black people were the victims, but I was shocked to discover that, when people read it, some of them thought that the script sounded vaguely racist. Not so much the plot, but the fact that I had black drug dealers talking what I thought was street lingo. Well, what did they want? Should they speak the queen’s English?
Only later did I go back and realize that yeah, despite my good intentions, the dialogue did sound unintentionally racist, but I still didn’t understand why. It wasn’t until I re-watched the first season of the “The Wire” that I figured it out: my dialogue wasn’t specific enough. It was generic “black projects drug dealer” jargon, which was a problem in several ways:
- Inspired by some news articles, I had set my script in Newark, a city I had never actually been to, so I couldn’t drop a lot of specifics about local places, local issues, local slang. When you don’t have specifics, you fall back on generics, and generics always sound phony and condescending.
- My black characters weren’t witty like the guys on “The Wire”. When the audience laughs at a character’s humor, they bond with that character, and they sense that the writer has bonded with that character.
- Most importantly, my character’s metaphor families were all the same: “black projects” and “drugs”. The result was that when you read the script, it seemed like I was just saying “black projects = drugs”. Worse, I was saying that that was all that these characters were.
- Stringer Bell’s is business school: “Y’all see, what we got here is an inelastic product.”
- Avon’s is family: “What’s the rule? Don’t say shit to anybody who ain’t us! [hug] You know it’s always love.”
- DeAngelo talks the language of a reformer: “The game ain’t gotta be played like that, yo.”
- Wallace keeps betraying that he’s a little too smart to keep doing this: DeAngelo holds up a fake bill next to a ten and says that real money has presidents on it, but Wallace mutters, “Hamilton wasn’t no president...”
- The biggest shock was Omar: I had remembered him as being the crudest, but he actually refuses to use R-rated language and chastises others for it. His metaphor family is “ethical pirate”, constantly talking about how he wants to “parley” because “a man’s gotta have a code.”
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES. Old school: “I’m a gentleman, don’t kiss and tell”, uses words like “accountrement”, inept profanity
YES. Drawn from her ambition: she tosses in bits of French and pseudo-intellectual words.
NO. she just has generic mom dialogue: “I don’t want you making weapons anymore. This monster thing has got to stop.” “No, it’s all right, I’m fine.” “No worries, I’ll make you another one.” “Get to work, woman.” “I’m going to have a serious talk with him.” “What he needs is some understanding.” “I think I’ll just find another school, that seems my son as a human being, not just another problem to be gotten rid of.” “I don’t want you to feel awful, Claire, we’ll be fine, we’ll be absolutely fine.”
Yes and no. His m.p. is “gentleman”, as in “Well, to tell a family secret, my grandmother was dutch,” but this is drawn from none of those three. He’s a man out of time.
YES. ‘50s gee-whiz speak.
The Bourne Identity
NO. Not really, because he doesn’t have any of those three. His dialogue is mostly everyman dialogue, except it’s more direct and efficient (like everything else about him.)
YES. Childhood: “Look at me, I’m [the other person]”
YES. Makes everything political in a satirical way. (“When it comes to women, you’re a true democrat.” “You wore blue, the Germans wore grey.”)
YES. He has two metaphor families. He speaks like a refined gentleman-servant (“What seems to be the problem?”) most of the time, but the language of a thug occasionally peeks out. (“All of it quicker than the wind from a duck’s ass [catches himself] Excuse me!)
Do the Right Thing
YES. For lack of a better word: Jive: “Don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit.” “He’s gonna be beating you like an egg for the rest of your life.” “No, you the man.” “Vito is down.”
NO. Sort of, she sounds like a teenager, showing her arrested development. “Are you always going to live like this?” “Poor and sexy, I hope so.” But that amount of personality is atypical. For the most part, she has little verbal personality.
YES. Family: The first thing he says to Charlene is “You’re Kenny Fleming’s sister”. Everybody is defined by family. Gentleman: “Be nice! Be respectful! Don’t disrespect her!”
YES. Adolescenece: “It’ll be totally strange.” “For the first time in forever”
YES. Ironically, it’s law: Approaches his wife and says to the men chatting her up “Nothing to see here, and you, come with me.” To the police: “You find this man.”
Just very slightly. He talks a little blacker to Rod than he does to her (“Yo, you at work?”) but for the most part he speaks rather generically. He’s code-switching, and around white people he’s studiously generic in his metaphor family.
Sort of meteorology: “Chance of departure today, 100 percent.” For the most part, he adopts phony personae, so he doesn’t have a real one.
How to Train Your Dragon
YES. A few mild ones, such as 21st century anachronism: “we have stubbornness issues.” And drama: “Duh-da-duh! We’re dead!”
In a Lonely Place
YES. mock-film noir, based on his screenwriting career.
YES. Developmental state: friendly-frat. “Is that so hard? That was fun, right?” Talking to his machines: “Dummy, you’re on standby for fire safety, you: roll it.” “Thrill me.” To himself: “Yeah, I can fly.”
YES. Developmental: We first see her listening to Steinbeck on audiobook and her voice is sort of Lost Generation-y (“I wish I could live through something.”)
YES. Ambition: cowboy: “See, I come from a long line of frontiersmen and outdoor types” “Her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.” “I preminisced no return of the salad days.” “Even my job seemed as dry and bitter as the prairie wind.”
YES. 1950s public intellectual “May I see some documentation” “I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but”, “strongly agree with your views”, “and whatnot”
YES. He mostly talks in an elevated way, but you get little glimpses of his Southern upbringing: “Living high on the hog dressed like this.”
YES. A little bit. Pop culture: “Here’s Johnny.” Calls son “Doc” like in Bugs Bunny.
YES. Metaphors themselves: “At my age, if you don’t have any money, you’re just a pasture animal waiting for the abbatoir” “I’m a thumbprint on a skyscraper.” Also wine: “This whole week has gone sour.”
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. West Virginia, says “sir” a lot.
YES. Only vaguely: Farmboy/Schoolboy “Boy am I gonna get it!” “C’mon, let’s go have a look!” For the most part, he is a pure everyman. We strongly identify with him but we don’t really admire anything about him.
YES. B-movie clichés. (Yes, although Ed Sikov points out in his DVD commentary that Joe sometimes veers into Austrian-Jewish syntax that doesn’t match his Ohio-goy background, as when he accuses his agent of “making with the golf sticks”)
The Value of a Counterintuitive Metaphor Family in Star Wars, Un-Racist Writing and Metaphor Families in “The Wire”