So there you sit. Final Draft is open, the tea is warm, and you’re ready to write your screenplay. You’ve blocked out your plot to the tiniest detail, returning to Staples two, three, even four times for notecards and pushpins, until your office corkboard looks like an abstract art project. You know (or think you do) where your story is headed. The structure is there. You have the house. But who’s going to live there?
You guessed it—characters.
Creating compelling, believable characters is the Writer’s best tool for forging a direct path to the audience’s emotions. And unless you’re writing The Artist Part 2: Uggie’s Revenge an enormous part of creating great characters is creating great dialogue.
Character and dialogue were the focus of Film Independent’s December 3 Writers Salon, featuring pros such as Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle, The International), Paul Weitz (Grandma, Being Flynn, About A Boy) and Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks.)
Zoe’s father Nicholas Kazan, whose many screenwriting credits include Patty Hearst and Reversal of Fortune, moderated the event.
One thing became clear from the moment the panel began: there are as many different ways of approaching character and dialogue as there are writers. Sometimes the process begins with research, sometimes from invention and sometimes from within.
“How do you find your characters?” the elder Kazan began.
“I do a lot of interviews,” said Singer, veteran of several projects rooted in real-life events. “It’s the minutia…little mannerisms or eccentricities.”
He mentioned traveling down to the port town of San Pedro to eavesdrop on local stevedores. Thus “go to San Pedro” became the running joke of the evening, part mantra, part metaphor for doing the heavy lifting of character work.
Weitz mentioned that his characters frequently began from a place of pure imagination, a skill he’s been developing since childhood.
“We played with dolls,” said Weitz of himself and brother Chris (a frequent collaborator.) “We had a little yellow dog named Stanley, and two twin alligators. We’d imagine them going to a club at night and getting into fights.”
For the younger Kazan, also an acclaimed actress, Character begins within. “I start with myself,” she said. “What are the ways this person is like me?” is the question she asks. “[Inevitably] some part of myself will be the little piece of ground that the Jenga tower gets built on.”
When the question of how creating detailed character biographies came up, opinions varied as to their usefulness.
“It depends on the material,” said Singer, who often finds the objectives of his screenplay at odds with the facts of his real-life subjects. “I constantly struggle to let go of pre-existing backstories.”
“I don’t find that train of thought useful,” said Weitz when asked if he maps out what his characters want, love or feel. “But it’s useful for honing,” he hastened to add.
Zoe said that her process was more instinctual. “I often start writing from a picture,” she said, mentioning that even in far-flung genres like sci-fi (a project she’s currently working on) she always tries to close the distance between herself and fictional people populating her world.
Adding insight from his own experience, Nicholas said that when asked specific details about his characters’ backstories he’ll often respond, “I don’t know, but I’ll go back to my room and ask them.”
As the conversation shifted to dialogue Nicholas outlined a few bad habits he emphatically fails to respect.
“I don’t respect writers who make up shit for the convenience of plot. I don’t respect characters who speak subtext. I don’t respect writers who have characters who all sound the same,” he said, citing a few examples by name.
Nodding, Singer contributed his own pet peeve. “Exposition is the thing that’s like nails on a chalkboard.”
“I used to have a phobia about characters saying they were bored. I worried the audience might realize that they were bored,” said Zoe, before conceding that sometimes boredom is necessary.
Nicholas speculated that perhaps an ear for dialogue was something a writer either had or they didn’t. His daughter disagreed.
“I think if people open their ears they’ll get better at dialogue writing,” she said.
Singer nodded. “I make it a point to listen to conversations wherever I go,” he said.
Wrapping up, Nicholas asked if the panelists ever dared to read their own dialogue out loud. A terrifying prospect for some, since what often looks good on the page sounds like hot garbage once bounced off human vocal chords.
“Yes.” said Singer.
“No.” said Weitz.
“I whisper them on like my 16th draft,” confessed the younger Kazan.
In the end, the consensus was that there are as many ways to create memorable characters and dialogue as there are roads to San Pedro. But the ultimate goal is to create authentic personalities who are well developed enough to provide their own storytelling momentum—characters that act to define the plot rather than being defined by it.
Have writing tips for creating great characters and dialogue? Don’t be stingy. Let us know your tips, tricks, and hard-fought nuggets of writing wisdom in the comments below!
Matt Warren / Film Independent Digital Content Manager