Archive | January, 2013

Character Exercise

23 Jan

There’s an exercise I often do at workshops to emphasize the importance of character. I give a few lines of dialogue, and show how drastically the meaning of them can change depending on who is speaking them to whom. A typical example is:

A: Hey

B: Hello

A: What are you doing here?

A could be friendly, happily surprised that B is there. A could be aggressive. A could be scared. I’m simplifying here, but this is the essence of the exercise. I had never really thought about applying this to real life, until this happened:

A: Hey

B: Hey gorgeous, it’s so good to hear your sexy voice

Again, these lines are different depending on who is speaking them. If B is in a relationship with A, this could be a fantastic thing to hear, and make A feel incredible. If B is a friend of A, this could be a friendly exchange, a bit of banter between friends. If B is a colleague of A, however, this becomes uncomfortable. This is not about the words themselves, these are not the lightning bolts of language like bitch, cunt, or whore. This is the insidious acid rain of casual sexism.

And it brings us neatly to subtext. Again, a vital tool for a writer to consider. When writing a script, we know exactly what the character means – and that what they mean is seldom exactly what they say.  Typically, the argument is that subtext is the realm of drama, and not of real life. But anyone who has stood in a doorway late at night and heard “So…do you want to come up for coffee?” can tell you that this is nonsense. Subtext is a part of everyday life. Nicknames have a subtext – they indicate a level of connection and familiarity, the use of them signals to others that a bond exists.  There’s a subtext in the way adverts are written. We humans go through life seldom, if ever, saying exactly what we mean.

This can of course be exploited. An immediate defence to an accusation of sexism (or racism, or any other ism) is “I didn’t mean it that way”. I would like to argue though that generally, offence is in the eye of the beholder. And this is particularly true for these subtle, everyday forms of sexism. It might not be horrible if your male colleagues call you darling one day. But if it happens every day, and they are all called by their given names, then it starts to get a little odd. And let me tell you that when you spend day after day, year after year, having your gender being responded to as of primary importance, being your most defining attribute, you get a little sick of it. Some people are genuinely surprised when you tell them that you find their behaviour inappropriate, and this has been a huge lesson to me – if you don’t tell people, they may never know. We are too often silent, too often gossiping behind people’s backs rather than confronting them and stating our unhappiness.

A standard suggestion for gauging sexism is “would you say the same thing to a man?”. Can you imagine A and B being male colleagues? This is another writer’s trick: context. There are no rules here. If you work in a context where everyone has a nickname and everyone feels comfortable with it, then all power to you. If you and your colleague have a friendship or rapport then obviously the dynamics change.  Where the problem comes in is when there is an inequality in the equation.  This is why we so seldom confront people, we already feel at a disadvantage, we feel we are taking a risk in speaking. We judge and condemn ourselves based on a lifetime of being judged.

Another question scriptwriters ask time and again is “who has the power in this situation”. There are organisational hierarchies – the boss has power over his or her employee – and then there are societal hierarchies. Traditionally, these favour strong white men. But it is never that simple and neat. And while it is an interesting thing to consider and debate as a writer – who would have power in a situation with a white homosexual male and a white woman, what if one character is black, what if the other character is black, who’s older, who’s stronger, and a hundred more permutations, each of which may add depth or nuance to your writing – it’s achingly difficult to navigate when it is real life.

So…complete this dialogue:

A: Hey

B: Hey gorgeous, it’s so good to hear your sexy voice


What can A say? If B is A’s boss, do they just let it go? Change the subject? Does A reply factually “I’d prefer it if you called me A”? Does A say “please don’t talk to me like that” or “I don’t find your tone appropriate”? What about “grow up” or “hey don’t take that tone with me”? And what if A does say something, and the next day this dialogue happens again? Repetition is powerful in drama, but in drama, there’s the rule of three. The first two times something will happen with a predictable response, the third time we will break that expectation. At what point does A say “fuck off”? Or stop talking to B at all? At what point does this erode you beyond repair?

Only this is not a theoretical exercise. This is life. And while it might seem like a fairly minor example, it may be the straw that breaks my back. And is further proof that in life, as in writing, character is everything.