Thursday, August 17, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have enough personality to be a fictional character. For one thing, I have no pet names for my wife. On those rare occasions I feel it would be appropriate to tack an endearment onto the end of a sentence, I fall back on the old standbys like sweetheart, darling, or baby. But I’m not a fictional character. And the one thing you need to understand about fictional characters is that they have more personality than us. 

When your characters use endearments, that’s one more chance for you to give them a little more personality. Use something specific, something no one else in the story would say. Sometimes you can even find language that amplifies the keynotes of their personalities:
  • Vince Vaughn in Swingers doesn’t say, “You’re awesome, dude!” like he probably would in real life. Instead, he says, “You’re so money, and you don’t even know it!” That’s wonderfully specific, and it speaks to his predatory tendency to value people according to what they can do for him. 
  • In the great film noir Scarlet Street, when the sleazy lowlife played by Dan Duryea calls his girlfriend “lazy legs” and she loves it, we pretty much know everything we need to about both of them. 
On the other hand, language quirks can also be a great way to cut against the grain of the other characteristics you’ve established and round out a character. When I wrote a script in which the villain was a hedge-fund asshole, my first instinct was to have him call his wife something crude like sweet cheeks, but then I decided I’d already rung that bell too often. But sweetheart was too generic, so I had him lovingly call his wife sweet potato. After all, this guy was a Wall Street shark now, but he’d worked his way up from a small town, so he should still have some of that cultural baggage.

In real life, we frequently converse in lazy clichés, but you must hold your characters to a higher standard because clichéd dialogue disengages your audience. When they read the line “I’ll be home soon, Sweetheart,” their eyes glaze over, but when the line is “I’ll be home soon, Sharkface,” then they have to stop and think about this person and this relationship.

Obviously, you can easily take this too far. Some writers tack a nickname onto the end of every sentence just to give their dialogue a feeling of rootin’-tootin’ fun. But for those moments when you would naturally feel the need to use an endearment, don’t be afraid to let your character show a little personality.

The 40 Year Old Virgin



NO. There’s very little personality in this movie, except for Parker.

An Education


The Babadook

NO. Not really.  This is more of a muted “everyman” horror movie.  

Blazing Saddles

YES. Quite a bit.

Blue Velvet


The Bourne Identity

YES. “I can tell that that guy knows how to handle himself.” (that’s how tough guys refer to someone being good in a fight)




YES. Very much so, see above.


YES.  “Do you know what happens to nosy guys?  They lose their noses.”

Donnie Brasco


Do the Right Thing

YES. Very much so.

The Farewell

YES. Just a bit. 

The Fighter

YES. Very much so.



The Fugitive

YES. Very much so.

Get Out

YES. especially Rod.  Dean with his “my man”

Groundhog Day

YES. “Don’t mess with me, porkchop.”

How to Train Your Dragon


In a Lonely Place

YES. Very much so.

Iron Man

YES. Very much so. “I also take out his trash,” Pepper says to the reporter.

Lady Bird


Raising Arizona





NO. Not really.  King is not overflowing with personality.  And of course, it’s hard to have more personality than the real Johnson.

The Shining



YES. “Never had the wallet for that” rather than money, for instance. 

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. The bug guys, for instance.

Star Wars

YES. Very much so. “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” 

Sunset Boulevard

YES. very much so. 

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