Deep Characterisation Through Dialogue with Kira-Anne Pelican PhD #LondonSWF


In any screenplay, dialogue is a way to capture personality and reveal character, so to look at our approach to dialogue through human psychology makes a lot of sense. Kira-Anne Pelican PhD, came along to share with Fesitval delegates, her insights as a psychological researcher, lecturer and script consultant for over 25 years. Her’s some of the thoughts she shared with us.

Character is a Spectrum

Referring to the dominant model of psychology Dr. Pelican, explains that personality has different traits, and each trait will have different facets. While memorable characters tend to be more extreme in one or two dimensions of character, more ordinary people will fall somewhere in the middle of a spectrum.

How Different People Speak Differently Can Be Learned

Understanding this in terms of dialogue we find that there are personality examples we can refer to from research that tell us how traits and facets manifest in speech. Characters high on extroversion will be warm and gregarious and seek out fun and adventures, those who are confident are very fluent in their sentences and usually finish what they have to say without stopping. Introverts may say less but what they say tends to be serious. As writers we can therefore create interesting complexity by increasing or decreasing these kinds of personality facets.

Finding Personality Traits Can Be as Easy as Looking Around Us

There are ways to distinguish traits and facets from research. Kira-Anne runs training workshops and consultancy for one, but we don’t need a degree in psychology to be able to begin using what’s been learned about personality to make our screenplay dialogue stronger. We can begin by listening to someone with the traits we want to introduce to our story. Whether our character is more or less fluent or sensitive than others, whether they use longer or shorter sentences, or have direct or indirect ways of saying things are the sorts of dialogue traits that helps an audience judge who our character is and they’re the things we can think about when creating or adapting that character.

We All Have Reasons For The Way We Speak

Other ways that a character’s personality can manifest is via their motivations. A more conscientious person is less likely to swear because they tend to present themselves more formally more of the time. A racist character might be at the extreme negative end of the spectrum of being open to new experiences. So it’s not just about what characters say or how they say it, but also why they say things in that particular way that can add insight to story.

Dialogue Helps Reveal Things Without Exposition

A few sentences can tell a lot about character, reveal kindness or a manipulative bent, extroversion or many other traits without us having to have the character display their traits, just indicating by how they speak that they have a particular personality. It’s also interesting to consider things like people’s levels of extroversion or introversion in terms of how they are affected by the people around them.

Psychology is Subtle and Universal

Sometimes, the very way a character speaks may seem to inhibit us from expressing their personality through dialogue. A highly introverted character might not speak a lot, so as screenwriters we need to find other ways for these characters to be known, but when they do talk, how they speak should also tell us lots about them.

Though human personality is a complex business, by understanding and being mindful of even a little of it, we can to reveal character as well as story and plot through what our protagonists say. And on a psychological level your audience is primed to understand what certain manners of speech mean without needing the psychology to be explained to them, they’ll pick up on the signals you are able to include.

So with only a little diligent psychology included in our writing we can transform interesting word choice in our dialogue to a more meaningful word choice and craft a more complex and yet easier to comprehend story for the characters we write. So it’s worth considering next time you write dialogue what it really means for your character to say what they say and why, given their personality, they should say it that way.