Thursday, May 27, 2010

American Beauty – Character Voices

(SPOILERS: American Beauty)

One of the strongest tools we have as writers is dialogue. And one of the many things good dialogue does is reveal character. This is done by establishing a strong “voice” for your characters. There’s a saying in screenwriting that in a well-written script you should be able to black out the names above all the dialogue and still be able to tell who’s speaking just by the way they talk.

Let’s look at how this is done in American Beauty (written by Alan Ball) with the three Burnham characters, Lester, Carolyn and Jane.

I would quickly summarize Lester’s voice as smarmy and phony; Carolyn’s as sarcastic and rhetorical; and Jane’s as surly and put upon.

We'll begin with Lester. Lester’s voice changes somewhat over the course of the movie. He starts whiny. He complains loudly about his life (to Brad in the office and Carolyn on the drive home) but ultimately lets people push him around.

He also says things that seem friendly but are clearly insincere, such as when Brad asks him if he has a minute and he replies, “For you Brad? I’ve got five.” Look at this short monologue to Jane from the first dinner scene (as always, Blogspot does not allow me to format this properly):

Well, you want to know how things went at my job today? They've hired this efficiency expert, this really friendly guy named Brad, how perfect is that? And he's basically there to make it seem like they're justified in firing somebody, because they couldn't just come right out and say that, could they? No, no, that would be too... honest. And so they've asked us--

(off her look)

--you couldn't possibly care any less, could you?

By the end of the movie he’s become more direct and forceful. He doesn’t complain because if he doesn’t like something; he takes action. Consider the second dinner scene where he throws the asparagus against the wall and says simply, “Don’t interrupt me, honey.”

Lester actually has two voices – one in voiceover and one in dialogue. If we consider that the voiceover is coming from beyond the grave and looking at the story in a kind of flashback, then this is actually an example of the changed voice. As a result, the voiceover is more direct and observant.

But there is some consistency in Lester’s early and later voices. He remains detached and cynical throughout. He only becomes heartfelt at the end of the movie when he talks to Angela after the aborted sexual encounter and in the voice over when he talks about the images that flashed through his mind just before he died. This dialogue gains added weight because it is not his normal way of speaking.

Now let’s look at Carolyn. Carolyn constantly speaks in sarcastic rhetorical statements. Consider this early exchange:

Jane. Honey. Are you trying to look unattractive?


Well, congratulations. You've succeeded admirably.

Lester, could you make me a little later, please? Because I'm not quite late enough.

And look at the second dinner scene when she carries on a rhetorical and sarcastic conversation with herself. Here’s just one bit of it:

No, no, don't give a second thought as to who's going to pay the mortgage. We'll just leave it all up to Carolyn. You mean, you're going to take care of everything now, Carolyn? Yes. I don't mind. I really don't. You mean, everything? You don't mind having the sole responsibility, your husband feels he can just quit his job--

There are plenty of great examples of this quality in Carolyn’s way of speaking, and it stays consistent through the movie because Carolyn never really changes.

Jane’s voice is more the typical surly teenager. She’s unhappy and supremely embarrassed by her parents. Her one word response to Carolyn in the exchange I used earlier is a great example. And look at Jane’s response to Lester in the first dinner scene when he complains that she doesn’t care about what he’s saying:

Well, what do you expect? You can't all of a sudden be my best friend, just because you had a bad day.

She gets up and heads toward the kitchen.

I mean, hello. You've barely even spoken to me for months.

The use of teen slang of the period (“hello”) also differentiates Jane from her parents.

Ricky and his dad and Angela all have very distinctive ways of speaking as well. I won’t break down each one, but you might think about what makes their dialogue unique to them.

Many things affect a character’s voice. In this case we have three characters from the same family, meaning much of their demographic characteristics – class, ethnicity, etc. – are the same. What distinguishes their voices are primarily personality traits, with Jane having the added distinction of being a different age.

You want to think about all these things as you develop your characters and let their personality, attitude and background come out in the way they speak.