When Characters Sound Too Alike (a few thoughts #12)

One of the most common concerns among playwrights with a play between drafts is that some of their characters sound too alike.

There’s a kind of rule among some theatre literary managers that if you cover up the characters’ names on a page of dialogue, you should still be able to tell which character is which.

I’m not sure that’s a useful thing to tell a playwright working through the mechanics of their play. Clear differences in speech ought to be a side-effect of the work, rather than an aim of the work.

Why? Well, personally, when I try to concentrate on differences between characters’ speech patterns I unconsciously exaggerate. Lisps, weird dialects, finishing every utterance with ‘eh?’ signalling a bunch of stereotyped thinking rather than clear delineation.

So what to concentrate upon to avoid this problem?

There are many things you can do – here are three – and the last of these is the quickest fix and probably the most effective.

(1) Focus on what the characters want in each scene and what problem each thinks they have at the scene’s outset.

For example, when a parent visits a teacher, the topic may be the parent’s child, but the problem that each thinks they have is going to be very different. If the parent thinks that their child is not being challenged enough, while the teacher’s problem is they want to get home before a plumber arrives, they will speak in very different modes and lengths of sentences.

(2) Remember that a scene ends when the main character of the scene either succeeds or fails completely in their goal, and therefore has no new way of achieving it in that moment.

Many of the less successful plays I have read and reported upon have characters discussing an issue well after, say, the keys have been handed over; or the information needed for the next scene has been given; or an agreement’s been reached about what to have for dinner. Discussion is not the same as dialogue. People discussing things tend to reach a similar register of language because there’s nothing at stake. That’s normal and it’s lifelike. But it’s not usually dramatic.

So, what to do about that? Make sure that each character is trying to get or to stop the other from achieving something – and that the tactics keep changing once one has failed OR end the scene.

And now for the tip that will probably do the most for you…

(3) Identify what the differences are in the characters’ emotional states and then rewrite the scene with that in mind.

This is the simplest of the tips to implement. Because usually when characters are sounding similar it’s because the playwright hasn’t thought about the different feelings of the characters.

A fearful character will always speak differently from a character experiencing fury or love.

Not only that, but also remember that characters’ emotions will change and characters will adjust their behaviour as a result of the way the scene plays out.

Characters who feel similarly speak similarly. So change the feeling.

To sum up, a lot of problems we experience and others identify in the scenes we write can be fixed by thinking about what scenes need – emotion, problem, motivation, action, tactics, conflict.

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