Five Tests to See Whether a Character's Voice is Working (from John August & Craig Mazin)
As screenwriters, we spend a lot of time writing, re-writing, and obsessing over dialogue. Let's face it -- the audience won't read the amazing writing of our action sequences, but they will certainly hear our pithy dialogue. But do each of our characters have a unique voice? Thanks to the ongoing generosity of John August and Craig Mazin, their most recent Scriptnotes podcast provides five tests to see whether a character's voice is working. See the five tests from the podcast below and my personal take on each:
1. Could you take the dialogue from one character in the script and have another character say it?
Without unique voices, it can be difficult for readers and producers to distinguish between characters. Also, if certain characters sound alike, perhaps they need to be combined or specific character traits need to be developed for each to make them necessary to the story.
2. Is the character speaking for himself or is he speaking for the writer?
Writing what the writer would say instead of what the character would say in a given moment can be a common pitfall. Examining why a specific character is compelled to speak at a given time in a scene and understanding how that particular character would put thoughts into words can help separate the writer's personal inflections from the character's tendencies.
3. Is the character expressing her own feeling in the moment, or is she expressing what needs to happen next [in the story]?
The story must go on, and the character's dialogue needs to propel the story forward. If it is an aside that isn't critical to moving the story forward, it may not be necessary.
4. What would a joke sound like from that character?
I personally found this test to be very insightful (and John August credited Once Upon a Time showrunner Jane Eppenson for bringing it up on a recent Nerdist Writers Panel podcast). As John points out, even if a writer isn't writing a comedy, understanding how a character would tell a joke or say a funny line gives the writer insight into that character's humor. This helps the writer understand how a character would handle a number of situations -- funny, sad, intense, etc.
5. Can you picture a given actor in the role, or at least preclude certain actors from the role because it doesn’t feel like they would say those things?
When we write, we can create our dream cast. Having a particular actor in mind can help a writer hone a character's voice to that actor's nuances. That doesn't mean the character won't work if that particular actor isn't cast, but envisioning a specific actor can distinguish a character's voice from others in the script.
Want to hear how John August and Craig Mazin approach these character voice tests? Listen to the podcast below, download it from the link or subscribe on iTunes.
Jump ahead to the ten-minute mark to hear their conversation on these tests.
Do you find these tests useful to test a character's voice? Do you have other techniques to make your character's voice unique? Let us know.