For me, I know—truly know—a character inside and out when their dialogue starts to come easily. When it flows. Until then, I’ll write some lines that clang like a wrench in an empty bathtub. I don’t worry too much about it at the beginning. Usually I’ll write my way into knowing the character, and, soon enough, all will feel right with the world. It’s a gorgeous moment in the middle of the long first draft push…when you know these people you’ve created well enough to really make them live. All of the sudden, your fingers are flying across the keyboard, and that dialogue starts to sing.
A common pitfall for many writers is making all the characters sound vaguely the same. Often, this will be the way you speak. It’s natural; we go with what we know. Push yourself, however, to find the specific vocabulary and rhythms and verbal quirks and attitude of each of your characters. The more you can differentiate between their way of speaking, the more distinctive each character will become. When done really well, they’ll come to life right on the page.
See if that isn’t true in this exchange from Die Hard between Hans Gruber, and John McClane.
Mr. Mystery Guest. Are you still
I wouldn’t think of leaving, Hans.
Unless you want to open the front
I’m afraid not. But you have me at
a loss, you know my name, but who
Just another American who saw too
many movies as a child. Another
orphan of a bankrupt culture who
thinks he’s John Wayne, Rambo,
Actually, I was always partial to
Roy Rogers. I really dug those
Do you really think you have a
chance against us, Mr. Cowboy?
A LIGHT blinks on the elevator.
These two characters are worlds apart—Hans, the urbane European criminal and McClane, the shoot-from-the-hip American cop—and they sound it. There is a formal elegance to Hans’s lines, apparent in phrases such as “You have me at a loss” and the perfect condescension of “orphan of a bankrupt culture.” McClane is a guy who says “dug,” manages flippancy in almost every line, and has no problem with a little vulgarity. You could cover up the names and easily detect who was speaking, something you should be able to do in your own scripts.
Take a look at this exchange from Thelma & Louise between two very different characters who come from the exact same background, Thelma and her husband, Daryl.
(she decides not to tell him)
Have a good day at work today.
You want anything special for dinner?
No, Thelma, I don't give a shit what
we have for dinner. I may not even
make it home for dinner. You know
how Fridays are.
Funny how so many people wanna buy
carpet on a Friday night. You'd almost
think they'd want to forget about it for the
Well then, it's a good thing you're not
regional manager and I am.
We can hear that Thelma is sweet, or at least cowed, by the way she says “Hon” and the way she wishes Daryl a good day and asks his preference for dinner. We can immediately hear that Daryl isn’t remotely interested in Thelma from his abrupt sequence of “What—Uh huh—What?!” If there were any doubt about Daryl being a jerk, we’d get it with his vulgar, “I don’t give a shit what we have for dinner.”
There is often a power dynamic in scenes, with one character establishing more dominance than the other. Daryl is obviously the dominant one here, though Thelma makes a subtle comeback with her comment about people buying “carpet on a Friday night.” We know she knows he’s up to no good, even though she won’t say it.
We also get a sense of the backgrounds of these characters, southern and probably not too highly educated. Their speech is very colloquial and neither would be able to match Hans’s elegance nor McClane’s flippancy.
This brings us to the question of dialects. Do not write them phonetically, a la Huckleberry Finn. It’s too difficult to read, and you’re almost guaranteed to offend someone. Simply say in your description that the character is from the South, or Irish, whatever designation you need, then indicate the dialect with little touches. The southerness of the characters is easily apparent in this exchange between Thelma and Louise.
How come he let you go?
‘Cause I didn’t ask him.
Aw, shit, Thelma, he’s gonna kill you.
The small details, such as “How come…” and “Aw, shit” and “’Cause,” give just enough regional flavor to get the point across.
Another way to reveal character through dialogue is to determine how a character would play to a certain audience. I’m not speaking of the audience watching the movie, but rather the audience the character is speaking to. We all change our way of speaking with different audiences—our friends, our boss, a check-out cashier, etc.—and those modulations say a lot about us. If you have a man who’s smooth and easy, then suddenly goes tongue-tied in front of his mother, we know there’s a problem in this relationship. The woman who can’t say the right thing to save her life on a date, but is the picture of poise in the boardroom? We know her confidence socially needs to come up a level.
An example from my own experience. I was once traveling in Connecticut, an old friend at the wheel of my car. He was speeding, and in Connecticut, that’s not good. I asked him—twice—to slow down. Then, the inevitable; he got pulled over. Two state troopers ambled up to either side of the car. And my dear friend rolled down the window and said to the mirror-shaded trooper, “Hey Deputy Dawg—trying to make your fucking quota?”
Oh, dear. Bang, we’re both out of the car and getting patted down as cars whiz past on I-84. Good times.
But what does it tell you about my (former) pal? Rebel. Rude. Maybe not too bright. Problems with authority. Funny guy, certainly. Maybe a little selfish (I wasn’t speeding, and yet I was face-down on the hood alongside him). Headed for jail eventually (indeed, he was). And all of that characterization comes from one line of dialogue.
This article is excerpted from Chapter 6 of Gotham’s book on screenwriting Writing Movies.