by Lizzie Finn
One of the most difficult skills for new screenwriters is creating multiple characters who each have a unique voice. Amateur screenwriters often write vague characters who all speak alike (i.e. speak like the writer). After years of practice, I’ve been told that I write strong characters with dialogue that crackles on the page. Here are some of my tips:
1) CREATE A BACKSTORY FOR EACH CHARACTER. It’s easier to write dialogue in a specific voice when you’ve created a very specific character. Too many amateur writers create indistinct characters who hover around their protagonist providing exposition while not feeling like fully formed characters of their own.
2) CAST YOUR CHARACTERS IN YOUR MIND. I not only create a unique backstory for each of my characters, but I also cast them with well-known actors in my mind. This way I can hear their voices clearly and assign specific cadences and rhythms that set them even further apart.
3) TAKE AN IMPROV CLASS. It surprises me how few screenwriters understand what actors do, nor do they know how to feel what their characters are feeling. Improv teaches you to get out of your mental space and into your physical body so you can become a character. It is a great way to explore voice, mannerisms, and quirks. Plus, it’s fun!
4) READ YOUR SCRIPT OUT LOUD. As a writer, I spend a lot of time talking to myself and the voices in my head. You can tell I’m trying to work out a scene when I’m pacing (rather than sitting) and acting all the parts out loud. My dogs think I’m nuts, but it’s all part of the creative process.
5) WRITE A SPEC SCRIPT OR FANFIC FOR YOUR FAVORITE TV SHOW. Nobody writes spec scripts anymore, although they used to be required if you wanted to get work on TV. Back when I was getting started, I wrote spec scripts for Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, and My Name is Earl (and won multiple awards). Because I wasn’t starting from scratch and knew these worlds intimately, it was much easier to write in the various characters’ voices. While nobody asks for spec scripts anymore, they are still a valuable tool. Once you’ve nailed writing for beloved characters who already exist, then it will be easier to create unique characters from scratch.