Following Suits

Every writer who creates multiple characters has to balance up two factors.

On the one hand, both characters are inherently part of the author, and their words and actions are dictated by what is written. Yet the voices of these two characters must also be sufficiently different from each other so a reader can accept both as individuals. This is not always an easy balance to achieve, and sometimes even the professionals don’t succeed.

English: Gabriel Macht in March 2009.
English: Gabriel Macht from Suits in March 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve recently been watching legal drama Suits. Generally speaking, the dialogue is of a high standard, and pared back to lend a speedy pace. But the standard, I’ve noticed, begins to slip around Season 4. The first observation was that every character – main, minor and recurring – swears in an similar manner. Had this attribute been confined to one character, perhaps two, I would have accepted it as a personal quirk; it works for Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, for instance.

Suits also relies upon the line What are you talking about? and its variations. Used sparingly, this technique can be a near-invisible way to clarify information for the viewer, but its constant use becomes obvious and lessens its effect. Writing in The Guardian, playwright Lucy Prebble even warns that If ever a character asks another character, “What do you mean?”, the scene needs a rewrite.

Suits is not the only drama affected by such similarity. A couple of weeks ago, I watched Collateral Beauty. Among its other flaws, it seemed that each character held a spiritual belief and would often speak to the others in similar platitudes. Yet even if the writer did want to evoke a spiritual tone, it might have helped if someone had questioned or challenged these beliefs.

So how can we, as writers, avoid the trap of carbon-copy dialogue?

A good starting point is to reduce the number of characters where possible. In Moby Dick, the narrator Ishmael is on a whaling ship with dozens of other men, but Herman Melville tells their stories by illustrating only a few. He focuses, for instance, on the overbearing and egotistical Captain Ahab who who could not be confused with Queequeg and his strange customs.

For those who survive the cull, it’s worthwhile letting them live in your head and allowing them space to forge their own identities, perhaps even to construct their own back stories. It should be possible for the reader to follow two characters having a short conversation by looking at their individual speech, mannerisms and attitude rather than he said or she said tags.

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Further character reference.

Regular readers will know I’m a big advocate of walking to help with thinking through plot problems or generating story ideas, and those who tuned in to the last entry will have seen my discussion about character.

Yesterday, and the week before that, I went to a couple of car boot sales. This isn’t an unusual thing for me to do on a Sunday, even if the weather is rarely so warm, but I’d never before considered what a rich place it is for character study.

English: Car boot sale at Apsley.
“How much for this?” “That’s a pound, love. Never been used.” “I’ll give you 50p for it.”  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have a look at what’s laid out and make up a back story about the reason for the sale. If a stallholder has a lot of mismatched crockery, is it from a house move? Perhaps there are a lot of records because someone has grown out of them? Then you can begin to extrapolate further, especially if you have a chance to listen in on part of their conversation.

For example, let’s say someone has a lot of signs containing inspirational quotes and is bragging about her children”s exam results. Perhaps she has so many that the time has come to sell any duplicates. Perhaps she compulsively collects them because she has low self-esteem. Perhaps she has low self-esteem because she’s always been told she’s a failure, and now relies on her children’s achievements to make her feel worthwhile. And bingo: you have a character.

I’ll also give you a real-life example of a man who sold wooden objects such as tables and bird boxes. His craftsmanship was excellent, but he would finish each one with a horrible orange-brown paint, ruining the aesthetic. Perhaps he does this because his eyesight is beginning to fail and he thinks the colour looks fine? Perhaps he’s in denial and won’t see an optician? Perhaps he constantly bumps into people and blames the other party for not paying attention? And bingo: another character.

From there, we have a story. Perhaps our craftsman bumps into the woman with low self-esteem at a car boot sale and blames her for not looking where she’s going? Maybe they start talking and find out they both love gardening? Could the story end with them moving in together on condition that he changes the colour of his creations?