January 24, 2012

Get Out of My Head

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director

You’ve probably heard the saying that “relationships are mirrors”, which I think is fascinating. There’s something reassuring in the concept that the people around us are put there to teach us things about ourselves. 

When we’re with people we admire or enjoy, we recognize the positive traits we want to cultivate within ourselves. Perhaps we gain even more by taking note of things we don’t appreciate in other people, making a conscious effort not to “be like that”.

In some respects, we are human sponges. When we spend a lot of time in the company of an acquaintance, we often absorb some of their characteristics. We find ourselves picking up on their traits, sharing inside jokes, and repeating some of their pet expressions. In life, that has a certain charm to it, being a bonding experience between two people. 

But in writing, pet phrases are something to be careful with. The audience expects characters to have well-defined, separate personalities, and failing to monitor that is a writing mistake too easily and too often made. To explain:

In a scene from a recent hit movie, one of the characters made the sarcastic comment, “I can’t wait.” A few scenes later, a totally different character, in totally different circumstances, made the sarcastic comment, “I can’t wait.” The second time around it was a little distracting. (Not that two people can’t say the same thing on the same day, but it did seem a tad coincidental. For now, we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.)

This past week on a popular TV comedy, a main character made reference to an object as having a “vibe” to it. Not ten seconds later in the next scene, an unrelated character said dialogue that included the expression “vibe”. That seemed a little too coincidental, and the impression one gets is that someone wasn’t paying a lot of attention to making these characters distinct from one another. You’re suddenly brought back to reality (and out of the story) by the realization that a writer wrote these words and they must have been fond of a particular phrase that day.

While it’s within the realm of backstory possibility that these characters “knew” each other and therefore could have absorbed each other’s vibe (sorry), it’s highly unlikely the writer thought that way, and we sure don’t. Even though he was best friends with Fred Flintstone, you’d never hear Barney Rubble exclaim “Yabba-Dabba-Doo”. Therefore, the “sponge” factor has no place in fiction, and we must take care to expunge the sponge from our own writing.

At the same time, intentional mirroring of phrases can be a powerful tool. Anyone who’s seen The Princess Bride will recall the brilliant, touching use of “As you wish.”

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but characters saying the same things is sincerely confusing. Let each line of dialogue speak for itself and you can spare your characters some unnecessary identity crises.

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