I’m a reader for a festival this spring. If I haven’t said this before, I’ll say it now: be a play reader for a festival, theater, or competition. You’ll learn a lot about playwriting.
This week, I’m reading this one play in which all of the characters sound alike. Thing is, the characters are different ages, different religions, different sexual orientations, different genders, different social classes. Sure, they all live in the same city, but it doesn’t make sense that they talk exactly like.
If people tell you your characters all sound alike…
Having characters that all sound alike may not be a problem if you’re writing a play that experiments with language. But in a “naturalistic” play, characters from different backgrounds should talk differently. If your characters are from different parts of the country or the world, if they’re different races, if they’re different ages, if they’re from different social classes, etc., make sure they sound different.
But it can be hard, with your own work, to notice that all of your characters are talking alike.
… there’s an easy way to test it.
Here’s an easy way to figure out if your characters all sound alike. It doesn’t require you to think, which is always a good thing for those times when you have a lot to do and very little time, and in any case you’re tired and you’d rather get some sleep.
Look for patterns in your punctuation.
Look at the punctuation. Punctuation is a clue to how people talk, right? What’s more, you’re probably less invested in the punctuation when you are in the words, so it’s emotionally easier to look at.
Look at sentence length. Look at whether the characters talk in complete sentences. Look at how you use commas, semicolons, dashes, ellipses, exclamation points, question marks. If you use slashes to indicate where someone interrupts, look at those, too.
If you’ve used the same pattern of punctuation with characters who are supposed to speak differently, then they probably aren’t speaking differently.
For example, I have a character in one of my plays who strings her thoughts along evenly, without stopping. So I used a lot of commas for her lines, basically making run-on sentences.
ELENA. Guys will ask me out, it’s because they think I’m some hot Latina, that I’m easy, you know, Latinas always are having lots of sex; you even assumed I must have kids, remember? but sooner or later they always break up with me, because I’m not the way they think I am; and they’re ashamed of what their friends think; their friends judge them, because they judge fat people, especially fat women.
Exclamation points: 0.
Question marks: 1.
A character in another play is hard-edged. I wrote her lines in short sentences, even sentence fragments. Her lines had lots of periods in them.
CATHY. I give up. I don’t know what else to try. Everyone has these stories that are supposed to explain things. But they don’t. Even the kudzu is dying.
What do I need to do? Do I need to ask you for permission to fix everything? Is that it?
May I have permission to fix this place?
Exclamation points: 0.
Question marks: 4.
Look at the difference! Elena uses 8 commas and 3 semicolons, and one question mark that doesn’t start a new sentence; and only one period. Cathy, on the other hand, uses 0 commas, 0 semicolons; and 6 periods and 4 question marks that end sentences.
Use different punctuation with different characters.
You can do this the other way around, too. When you’re writing different characters, write their lines using different punctuation patterns. They’ll sound different without you having to try too hard.
Is this the tail wagging the dog?
So maybe you’re thinking, this is so mechanical, so soulless, will it work. But think about it. Punctuation on the page is an indicator of how your characters talk. If you’re writing lines for them, you’re writing punctuation, too. Being conscious of punctuation can help you give each character his or her unique voice.