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Character Development & Dialogue

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Karl Iglesias

Debra Eckerling

Karl Iglesias, author of Writing for Emotional Impact and The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, believes that the secret to a well-written movie is creating compelling characters.

“To me, when you see it’s a great movie … 99.99% of the time it’s a great movie because of the characters, and not the plot,” he says.

Some of Iglesias’ favorite movies are Casablanca, Chinatown, Sunset Boulevard, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. They are favorites because of the characters.

“[These films] focus on the characters’ psychology,” says Iglesias, who has a degree in psychology. “They focus on the character flaws, on the character change, on revealing the character, taking their time, peeling off the layers. [This is done] so ever single scene you see, you discover something new about the character or every line of dialogue … reveals their character, their traits, or their attitudes. “

Writing compelling characters involves a conscious choice to focus on that element of the screenplay. Most beginners, he believes, think about plot and use dialogue as means of exposition, sharing information with the audience.

“The writers have something to say, and they think they are just going to say it through the mouths of their characters,” he explains. “So they deliver mostly information to advance the plot or tell us the story.”

Iglesias, who teaches Writing Dialogue for Emotional Impact based on his book, shares some of the techniques he recommends writers can use for going beyond exposition in dialogue.

“[There] are four different areas in the dialogue chapter of my book, Writing for Emotional Impact,” he explains.

1. Emotional Impact—the fun part of dialogue: wit and sarcasm
2. Individuality—revealing the characters through their voices
3. Subtle Exposition—revealing exposition in a subtle way
4. Subtext—what's behind the words

“There are techniques to reveal individuality and reveal characters and there are techniques to reveal subtle exposition,” Iglesias continues.

“For individuality, if you want to reveal character, the number one thing you should think of and focus on is knowing your character. … You’ve got to know what kind of character they are, what they believe in. … Once you know your character, once you know where they’re from, and how they grew up, and what kind of social status—if they’re a janitor as opposed to a professor—you’ll know how they speak. You can’t have a janitor speaking like a professor, for example. That would seem kind of silly.”

One way to handle writing necessary exposition is to surround it with conflict.

“You focus on the … conflict in the scene, so that the exposition is a byproduct of the conflict, not the main thing,” Iglesias elaborates. “For example you wouldn’t have two characters sitting in a restaurant just giving out information, because there’s no conflict around it. But you can have that same exact scene with two characters in the scene, talking, where there’s conflict. Meaning, one character wants something really badly from the other character and the other character is refusing to give it to them. … So all that dialogue and all the information that comes out of that conflict is exposition, but we don’t focus on it, because we are fascinated by the conflict.

“There are other techniques you can use. For example there is what I call glazing the scene with emotion, where there’s actually some kind of tension going on even if there’s no conflict … One character is definitely trying to make the other character feel something—they are trying to embarrass them for example or loose their cool or push their buttons. And that’s really fascinating to an audience. Everything else is a byproduct even though we don’t pay attention it, it’s technically exposition, because we are fascinated by the emotional dynamics of the scene.”

There it is: The more the realistic the characters are emotionally, the more they act like real people. So it is all about psychology—what makes a character tick, so to speak.

“You combine psychology with creativity and then you have the best of both worlds,” Iglesias says.

Karl Iglesias' next Course starts on May 12.