How Do Your Characters Communicate?

Screenwriting involved mining character relationships and their interactions. There are a number of ways characters communicate with each other. As a screenwriter, you must give each character a predominant communication style to complement their personality. Moreover, look at ways to give your main characters opposing communication styles to generate conflict between them.

When constructing your characters, determine their dramatic functions first, such as a protagonist or an antagonist. Then you can think about their dominant character traits such as happy or sad before you determine their communication style.

It’s helpful to draw up a character grid and assign dominant communication style to help you keep your characters ‘in character’ as you write your screenplay.

Every screenwriter knows that characters don’t always communicate in the same way in all circumstances. It’s fine to give a character an occasional atypical communication style to create interest and intrigue.

Communication is frequently broken down into the following qualities:

  • Voice – volume, pitch, speed, and modulation
  • Posture – sitting up, slumped, chest in or out
  • Gestures – touching, hand movements, fidgeting
  • Facial Expressions – smiling, wincing, eye contact
  • Spatial – how close they are to others, respect of personal space

Consider the permutations of these communication qualities. Generally, they are congruous as a communication cluster. For instance, an aggressive character will speak with a raised voice, have a straight back and puffed chest, point, have tense or clasped hands have a snarly face and stand close to people.

Let’s explore some key styles of communications:

Verbal vs Non-verbal

Some characters love to talk, while others, not so much. Think about those chatty best friends, that act as a sounding board for their friends in need.  They readily verbalize thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Non- verbal characters are more cerebral. They hesitate before articulating a verbal response; assuming one is necessary. They may respond with a gesture such as a nod or facial expression such as a smile instead. Neither is better or worse than the other.

Crowd vs Solo

This often ties into a character’s personality trait of being an introvert or extrovert. Some characters prefer to be around large groups of people and adjust their modes of communication accordingly. Generally speaking, they verbalize rather than gesture their thoughts. However, physical comedians might engage a crowd through stunts, contortions and facial expressions without uttering a word.

Solo communicators, by virtue of their situations, speak only when they have to. Most of their communication is internalized and expressed through gestures.

Direct vs Indirect

This category is self-explanatory. The former communicate with clarity and leave little room for misinterpretation or misunderstandings. Such characters may be perceived as more trustworthy and honest.

Indirect communicators may be considered “wishy-washy”, indecisive, mysterious or discreet. In more extreme cases they may be dishonest or downright frustrating because you cannot get a straight answer out of them.

Concept vs Task

These are the thinkers and the doers. Concept communicators are meticulous, plan every detail, and try to account for every possible outcome before they take any actions.

Task-oriented communicators can either be impulsive or act with very little planning. Let’s try this and see if it works out? This communication style mix is often seen in detective/ crime ensembles.

Active vs Passive

Active communicators tend to take the lead. They dominate conversations with more talking, posturing, and thinking. They are assertive, clear with their thoughts and actively encourage interaction and expression from other people.

More extreme forms of active communication are sometimes referred to as aggressive. These characters play to win, demand attention, are controlling and entitled, and must always be right.

Passive characters tend to be more empathetic, by taking the time to listen to other (especially opposing) points of view.

They spend less time talking and more time formulating a response. Excessively passive communicators are sometimes labeled submissive. They are overly-agreeable, meek and softly-spoken. They are not necessarily doormats, but they often put the needs of others ahead of their own.

Passive communicators may appear deceptively agreeable. Oftentimes, they are the influencers and change agents of a group. Extremely passive people are non-assertive. They rarely express their true feelings and avoid communicating when they can.

There is a hybrid communication style called Passive-Aggressive. They are the frenemy-type characters; sugary to your face and mean-spirited behind your back. Their communication qualities are incongruous. They may speak sweetly while being insulting and aggressive. They are often sarcastic and manipulative.

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