Is it any good? Struggling to find the voices of my characters

I recently finished the first full draft of a script for a (hopefully) one-hour long stage show, and as I really need to get it finished soon I quickly moved onto the next natural step – rereading it so that I could try to improve it. And I’ll admit to one of the cardinal sins of the comedy writer – I laughed at several of my own jokes, particularly those which I wrote so long ago I couldn’t actually remember writing (but which I must have, unless AIs are much more advanced than advertised and spend their time collaborating with amateur writers). But I rapidly ran into a problem with my script.

 

I had no idea if it was any good or not.

 

When it comes to writing my science-themed stand-up, I’ve reached the point where I can come away with a reasonable feeling for how funny a “finished” (as someone once said – “Art is never finished, just abandoned”) set is, especially after having run it past my girlfriend. Admittedly this doesn’t tend to be accurate on the level of individual jokes, and the actual result depends massively on my delivery (something else I think I can reasonably reliably judge, with the usual large caveats thanks to ) but I’m generally happy to roll with it. Writing a piece of fiction for the stage, however, is something different.

I love reading fiction, and desperately need more bookshelves. It’s rare for me to stop reading something (as a kid I would read the sides of cereal packets for lack of other reading material at the breakfast table, which probably tells you what sort of child I was), although I have put down a few books recently that I’ve just not gotten along with at all. And there are some characters in these that I’ve felt that I’ve got to know over the years and will be sad to see go, once their tales are finished. On some level, they seem “real” to me even though I know they are just the imaginings of someone else (and partially me, I suppose, given the fact that I’ve had to interpret the words based on my own experiences).

The characters in my head when I’m writing seem “real” in a different sense. They’re less well formed, instead being more real in potentia – these could be real people somewhere, and they feel like they could do the things that they do over the course of the plot, but they don’t feel fully realised yet in the way that the characters in books or TV shows or other people’s plays can do. And crucially, they only seem real to me up until the point where they have to speak, or more accurately, when I have to put words into their mouths. I know vaguely what they are thinking, and how they are reacting when I write a line, but once it’s on the screen I take a look at it and think “no-one would say that, least of all this character”. Somewhere in-between the vague sense of character in my head and the keyboard my brain stops looking at the line as “something this character would say” and starts seeing it as “something I have written and therefore clearly isn’t something said by this character”.

This is clearly a problem based on lack of experience, and I’m just glad that I’m questioning my work rather than blithely accepting it all; it’s inevitable that I’m going to fall foul of the Dunning-Kruger effect and probably have already, just by thinking that this script as a whole might not be terrible. However,  deciding that it was rubbish and so not carrying would not be helpful either, so I’ve been deliberately trying to get over that.

In this case, I’ve successfully managed to identify one area where I had trouble, and so I’ve made an extra effort to go through my draft and try to tweak lines in order to make them more characterful. In a few cases I even changed which character was delivering lines, as I realised that the original character I’d given the line to wouldn’t have been thinking in that way at that time. I think it’s slightly better now than it was, but to get any further a new perspective might be useful. Which means that I’ve sent the draft out to a couple of my friends whose opinions on various forms of media I trust, who have volunteered to help look over the script. It’s not easy showing something creative like this to someone else, especially when I know it’s not in a finished state yet, but it’s necessary if I’m going to have anything like an actual play in the end. So now I just have to wait and hope it’s not too dire.

In the meantime, I’d be very interested to hear how other people make sure that the characters in their head translate to the page. Or failing that some advice on taking advice well, as I’m sure I’m going to need it. As usual, comment below, and interesting responses may inspire a blog post of their own…

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2 Responses

  1. If you are fortunate enough, I would ask some friends, other writers or actors to do a table-read of your script. Don’t give them any direction, but maybe a short bio for their character.

    Listen to them read without giving them any feedback (or if this is too difficult for you, tape record the reading and leave the room!). Listen carefully to how your words sound in other people’s voices and you will hopefully be better at picking out lines and words which sound ‘in character’ or don’t fit somehow, and have an easier time thinking of replacements.

    I once wrote a monologue and paid a voice-over actor to read it a few times to so I could edit it. The experience was massively helpful because they were no longer my words, they were hers, and so it became far easier to edit.

    • Michael Conterio says:

      Thanks for the advice Daniel. I think a time gap in-between the writing and the editing might also help for the same reason – it’s harder to feel that the words are “mine” when I can’t actually remember writing them!

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