Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Distinct Character Voices

Creating distinctive character voices can be a tricky thing.  Often only noticed in their absence, distinctive character voices provide so much information; they can denote class, culture, region, education, age, and personality. They also make the world of the play rich and ripe for a creative team to work with.

I’ve been working with a playwright having some trouble creating distinct voices and it got me thinking that she couldn’t be the only one having this trouble (I’m also about to embark on my first playwriting challenge and I know I’m going to come up against this)…so I hit the internet to see what I could find and sent some emails out to playwrights I deeply respect to ask their opinion.

One of the most prominent things I found was that it is important first for you to have a deep understanding of the world of your play and your characters in it.  Here are a few questions you might ask yourself:

Understanding the Character:
  • How old are they?
  • What class are they part of?
  • What is their education level and/or status?
  • Where do they come from?
  • What is their history?
  • Optimist or Pessimist?
  • Energetic or Lethargic?
  • Does the character hesitate?
  • Does the character refer to himself? For example, would they say “I will do that” or “It needs to be done”?
  • How does the character act towards those in a higher status? Lower status?
The way a character speaks will vary from situation to situation.  How does the character’s voice differ at work and at home? In a stressful situation or a social situation?

Here are some exercises that I gathered from playwrights Meg Braem, 
Mike Czuba, Gordon Pengilly, Lindsay Burns, and Conni Massing.

Meg Braem
First I have [my students] write monologues, this gives them the time to spend getting to know a particular character's thought and use of language without having to worry about balancing the scene's action. I still make them use conflict in the monologue because then they can see how their character sounds when in action.

Conni Massing
Try to think of things that are specific and unique to the character; do they have a verbal mannerism? (ie like, um, …, yep, etc)
The status of the character has so much to do with how they express themselves: some characters are worried about being understood or believed so they might include more description. If they are constantly seeking approval, they might trail off…
Do they assume that what they say will be believed? If so, they might use shorter more definitive statements.

Mike Czuba
Distinct character voices is not tough, but takes practice. Some things to focus on: the individual goals and objectives of each character will directly influence their voices. Tactics and status is another area of focus to influence voice. 

An exercise that helps is to do what I call 'Dives', 10 minutes of sustained stream of consciousness writing. Where you write (pen and paper, no typing) without stopping or thinking about what exactly you're writing. You can do this for each character. It doesn't have to be anything directly related to the content of the play but has to come from the character. The more you know about the character will also dictate how they speak. Letting the characters live for a little while sub-consciously might open up new doors into their personality, which again, directly influences voice. 

The biggest thing is to listen to the voices around you. Where ever you are, friends, family, strangers. Picking up on pace, inflection, word choice and turns of phrase. And most importantly, don't make them all sound like you. The first draft will always have traces of your own voice in every character, but as you proceed through future drafts you need to listen carefully to each voice as individuals.

Lindsay Burns
I start by casting the play in my head, with whomever. 
I also watch movies with the types of characters I want to get a sense of how they talk.

Gordon Pengilly
To be quite honest I think writing good dialogue, which includes the task of developing distinctive character voices, is a gift or at least a trait that a playwright just has. Other playwrights are natural born storytellers or theme masters. Having said that anybody can get better at creating character voices with practice. First: read good plays! If somebody tells you your characters all sound alike try cutting out pictures from magazines of people that remind you of your characters and tack them to the wall or on a hunk of cardboard or something. I've used pictures of famous actors. Try it. Don't be afraid that your lead character is going to sound like Sean Penn and everybody's going to know it because he won't. Once you sift it through your own inner voice and the dialogue you're creating it'll come out new and all yours.       

AM I DOING IT RIGHT?!?! Let’s see..

From Meg Braem
I have students print out their scenes without any of the character's names. We should be able to tell who is talking just by how they talk. The idea is that we shouldn't need character headings at all. If the scene's characters all sound the same and you can't really tell who is talking, it is time to go back to writing monologues to spend the time getting to know each character's voice.

Hopefully you will find something in this post that helps you the next time you find yourself having a hard time nailing down a distinct character voice. I think I can safely summarize by saying:

Know your character. Know the world of your play.
Find a way to fake it until it is a part of you.

Thank you to Lindsay, Gordon, Conni, Mike, and Meg for your generosity in sharing J

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