How to Be Specific

What does it mean to be specific with a character? Easy to say to another writer, but what does it mean, specifically? How do you do it? Because it’s fine and dandy to write character profiles, or come up with unique details but if that work doesn’t find its way into the dialogue, what good is it?

And that’s really the key – it’s not just being specific with a character willy nilly, it’s making the dialogue character specific. Again, what does that mean? You don’t want to fall into the trap of writing dialogue that has all these wonderful specific details but sounds wooden:

“Dear brother do you remember that significant day so long ago when Fluffy died and I decided not to follow in the family footsteps and became a brain surgeon?”

I think writing character specific dialogue means that you have given a character a purpose, and their dialogue supports the pursuit of that purpose. When you give a character a purpose, or a specific way of being, then your writing naturally becomes specific.

For example, I am in the middle of working on an A Midsummer Night’s Dream inspired play centred on the Fairies. The character of Mustard Seed up to this point has been bland and without purpose. Knowing that wasn’t good enough, I spent some time trying to think of her drive in the play and decided that she didn’t like another character. So that was her purpose, and she could react specifically to that purpose.

Here’s the first pass at one of her lines – the bland and purposeless version.

PEASEBLOSSOM: Where is Cobweb?

MUSTARD SEED: I don’t know.

Zzzzzzzzzzz. Tells you nothing about the character, it has no imagery, no action. Nothing. Now here’s the second pass after clarifying Mustard Seed’s purpose.

PEASEBLOSSOM: Where is Cobweb?

MUSTARD SEED: Stuck in a mud puddle probably.

And that’s how you write character specific dialogue. It accomplishes the same goal, Mustard Seed doesn’t know where Cobweb is, but is also specific to her character, to her purpose and as an extra added bonus, gives the actor some attitude to play.

If you’re having trouble with a character, go back and look at them in terms of their purpose. And then look at every word they say. How does it get them closer or farther away from that purpose?

About the author

Lindsay Price