Friday, September 26, 2008

Mastering Your Character's Voice

A Guest Post by Chris Soth

"Every profession is a conspiracy against the layman."  
~ George Bernard Shaw

What did old GBS mean when he said this? Well, everybody who does a job, especially a specialized and high-paying job, is at great pains to keep their trade secrets to themselves, lest the secrets become widely known and the entire profession is demystified to the point that...anyone can do it. Then the initiated have just lost a good thing.  

Lots of people do this. In many professions. I used to work as a professional magician and, man, there's a conspiracy. If you've ever performed a magic trick for an audience you will definitely be thinking "I can't believe they're buyin' this." For about the first dozen times.  

But the conspiracy issue, especially the one going on among screenwriters, is the stuff of another newsletter.

Why do I bring this up now?

Last week, I put together a quick list of things that might influence a character's "Voice"...their own unique way of speaking, which sets them apart from all other characters in the script, and from speakers of their own language as well.  While I'm sure it's not complete, here it is again:

What will have an influence on a character's use of language?

1. Their job.

2. Their socioeconomic status and educational background.

3. Their cultural and ethnic background.

4. Any other languages they may speak and whether English (I'm assuming most of us are writing in English....) is their first language.

5. Who they're talking to in this specific scene...and what they're talking about.

Let's look at just that first one: Their job.

What's one of the fastest ways for a professional conspiracy to wall out the layman?  Create its own language. A specialized lingo. It's  own...jargon: the specialized or technical language of a trade, profession, or similar group.

No quicker way to make us outsiders feel dumb than to start speaking your own language that they don't speak -- and no faster way to make us outsiders think that the speaker is smart, inside and in the know…smarter than we are.  

Plumbers...see Volume 14 of the Kinsley Manual (email me if you know what I'm referencing). Doctors: "amytropic lateral sclerosis." Computer technicians: "54 gigs and skuzzy drive"...ok, I'm making most of these up.

Do you think screenwriters don't have their own jargon? Drop the phrase "slug line" at a party of non-writers or film people and see what happens...

I wrote something set on a moon base we don't have people who live on moon bases just yet, so I either had to make up the language I figured they'd speak, or have them speak plain old Earth-bound English.

But since I've always loved the space program, it didn't seem like too far a stretch that the first moon settlers would have come out of that program --

-- and that comes out of aviation. And those aviation characters are a bunch of can-do, rugged individuals whose very speech pattern, slang and word choice bespeak great bravery and derring-do.

So, I reread The Right Stuff, and every other book I could get on the space program, especially the moon missions.  

And boy, did I find a rich world of jargon. "A-OK" comes from the space program. "You are go for launch." And even "blast-off" and "splash down."  And the world is rife with cool acronyms too: EVA, SST and a bunch of others where I also don't know what they stand for... point is, I had found my way into these characters and their world that was rich, colorful and fun for me to write as well. And that quickly set them up as cool and least for me.  

So, if it wasn't obvious...every screenplay takes place in its own world, and every world has its own language. You may co-opt it from our world to a degree, especially where the worlds overlap, as I did in the example above. But be sure to craft it to be specifically the world of your movie – ie, in the screenplay above, I had to ask myself: "Moon dwellers were probably astronauts/aviators at one time and that influenced how they talk...but then what happened to their language?"   

One caution...and one tip...

Some professions have a jargon so dense that only the initiated speak it –- and understand it. It really is a foreign that it contains words we don't understand. You run the risk of losing your audience here, just as much as if you were showing them an unsubtitled film in a language they don't speak or understand. You can't do that...and yet, maybe, you can't have the character speak in layman's terms, he just wouldn't...what do you do?

Have a translator character repeat the line right after – get credit for the rich language and teach your audience to use it themselves.  For example:

Houston, we are go for extra-orbital
lunar injection!


Or have the characters translate for themselves-– if they're speaking to a layperson. So, walk the line between specialized language and everyday language – a tricky balance, but worth while in the end!

Chris Soth is a USC screenwriting MFA with two produced credits and 28 screenplays to his name, and the founder of He teaches his own "Mini-Movie Method" based on USC screenwriting techniques and runs a screenwriting mentorship program at


Sun Singer said...

Yes, yes, this is how to do it (it being writing rather than sex). It all comes down to detail, I think, whether it's the jargon or the clothes or the house.

But, I fill I must spill the beans you didn't spill when it comes to jargon. The writer can't go out and copy a bunch of jardon down and then use it randomly. S/he has to understand it or s/he will be like a slug line moving through a vegetable garden--out of place.


Sun Singer said...

Hmm, I really need to develop proofreading skills. "Fill" should be "feel" and "jardon" should be "jargon" or "gargoyle" or something like that.


Mark David Gerson said...

All very true, Malcolm. Thanks for the insight and clarification.