What can a sitcom teach about writing a novel? About using dialogue for character development?
I’ve been watching a lot of “Cheers” lately on Netflix. Just for the heck of it really, and because I’ve always loved “Frasier.” One episode in particular from season three really got me thinking about speech, and creative writing, and dialogue.
The episode was the first I’ve ever seen with Carla Tortelli’s ex-husband, Nick. Nick doesn’t have a lot of class, even though his business is picking up, so financially he’s doing well. He works as a television repairman and has just remarried.
What really interested me about Nick was the way he talked. Throughout the episode, he consistently used object pronouns incorrectly. Some examples that might not be verbatim but are really close:
- Carla, the thing about you and I…
- You just can’t do that to her and I!
- Between you and I…
This is a common grammar mistake that occurs when people are trying to speak formally but don’t realize that “I” is actually incorrect after a preposition. It sounds proper and high class, but it’s wrong. It should be:
- Carla, the thing about you and me…
- You just can’t do that to her and me!
- Between you and me…
The first time Nick made this mistake, I wondered whether it was an error on the part of the writers. After multiple occasions of the same mistake, displayed only by Nick, I knew the pronoun mix-ups were intentionally written to help define Nick’s character.
This consistent mistake on Nick’s part said SO MUCH about him as a character. All through an engrained grammar error!
It showed he’s trying to improve himself. Or at least, he’s trying to present an image of himself that shouts success and class. Some level of respectability.
It also shows he doesn’t quite have the ability to pull it off. When all is said and done, he’s a sham. He’s all surface and glitz and pomp, but underneath, nothing substantial is there. The plot of the episode backs up this assessment of his character to a tee. The way he talks helps to drive the point home.
I watched this episode days ago, but as you can see here, the character of Nick stuck with me. I remember his name. I remember his air. I remember what a sleazeball he turned out to be. And I remember how he talked.
THE POWER OF DIALOGUE
It just goes to show what a powerful tool dialogue can be for a writer. It can do SO much heavy lifting where characterization is concerned! Not only what your characters say, but how they say those things, defines them.
How they phrase something can reveal their background and education level.
It can reveal whether or not they’re trying to impress someone, with no direct mention of that fact.
It can reveal how much they care, in general, about how they present themselves and what other people think of them.
It can reveal what level of conversational intimacy they’re comfortable with, in specific circumstances as well as in a general sense.
So, remember to get to know your characters and how they talk. It’s important. And it can save you lots of tedious exposition explaining personality, mood, and background.
After all, going back to Cheers: How much would you say it says about Diane, when she insists on using Norm’s full name, Norman, even though everyone else calls him “Norm”?