Reservoir dogs - characterization through dialogue

The 4 levels of characterization through dialogue

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To put it simply, creating characterization through dialogue means to let your characters present themselves to the audience.

I don’t mean breaking the fourth wall or using voice over, I mean making each line that the character says (or doesn’t say) meaningful and personal. This way after only a few lines, your audience will feel like they already know your character.

Think about dialogue as a music genre. Some people are loud like metal, others are well spoken like classical, others are incoherent like jazz. You have to ask yourself “What does my character sounds like?” and then go deeper into the 4 levels of characterization through dialogue.

Level 1: the character’s past

Think about your character’s upbringing. Since a person’s environment shapes the way he speaks, your character’s past makes his dialogue unique.

Is he the CEO of a company who went to Harvard and grew up in a big city?

Then he would say: “Mr. Hollens if I won’t receive the payment before Friday, I’m afraid that I will have to take extreme measures …”

Is he a junkie that sells weed to sustain himself, lives in his parent’s basement and never finished high school?

Then he would say: “Listen up, kid. You’d better bring me my money before Friday or you won’t like what like what’s gonna happen …”

Take a look at this scene from Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs:

When you hear them say at least one curse word in each sentence you certainly don’t think “These are gentlemen from the Victorian era talking at a country club”. At this point in the movie, we don’t know anything about their backgrounds, where they grew up, if they went to college, if they have a job, if they are married etc…

Yet, even if we close our eyes and simply listen to their words, we learn a little bit about them.

Level 2: don’t make the dialogue “on the nose”

In order to be effective, the dialogue cannot be “on the nose”. This means that it cannot be a conversation between two or more characters where everyone just says everything they’re thinking without filters, metaphors, or forms of speech that are typical of a conversation.

For example:

Not on the nose dialogue

Mr. Pink: “Look, I ordered coffee. We’ve been here a long fucking time and she has only filled my cup 3 times. When I order coffee I want it filled 6 times.”

[…]

Nice guy Eddie: “Excuse me Mr Pink, the last fucking thing you need is another cup of coffee”

On the nose dialogue

Mr. Pink: “The waitress didn’t serve me well that’s why I don’t want to tip.”

Nice guy Eddie: “Mr. Pink, you are bitter and angry for no reason.”

Not on the nose dialogue

Mr. Blue: “You don’t care if they’re counting on your tips to live?”

Mr. Pink: “You know what this is? It’s the world’s smallest violin playing just for the waitresses”

Mr Pink - characterization through dialogue

On the nose dialogue

Mr. Blue: “Society doesn’t allow the waitresses to be financially stable, our tips sustain them. Don’t you care?”

Mr. Pink: “I don’t care”

The “on the nose” dialogue is boring, impersonal and it doesn’t make the characters sound even remotely natural.

Level 3: the context of the conversation

With a few familiar expressions, you can make the audience understand what the context of the scene.

For example: there is a big difference between a woman calling a man “Honey” and a woman calling a man “Sir”.

In the first case, it’s implied that she has some sort of relationship with him. She might be a mother calling her son or a wife calling her husband. In both cases, we know that the two characters know each other and are comfortable enough to give each other nicknames.

“Honey, can you come here and help me moving the couch?”

But if instead of “Honey” the woman calls the man “Sir”, we understand that they have a formal relationship. She might be a military cadet talking to her captain, or an employee talking to her boss. What we know for sure is that they don’t have a personal relationship.

“Sir, can you sign this paper?”

What we see on the screen are just a few men sitting around a table smoking and talking and we know nothing about them. The first pieces of information that we get come from the dialogue:

  • their nicknames (Mr. Pink, Mr. Blue, Mr. White etc…)
  • that they are not in a formal context (they talk to each other as if they were old friends)
  • that they don’t know everything about each other (everyone is surprised that Mr. Pink doesn’t believe in tipping)
  • no one is afraid of the other (they mock each other and scold each other without expressing fear or excessive anger)

We get to know all those things WITHOUT ACTION.

Level 4: Conflict

Here is where we get the most characterization through dialogue. Conflict brings out the “real” personality of the character because it forces him to make choices he wouldn’t normally make.

In the last scene of Reservoir Dogs Mr. White decides to do something that he would have never thought of doing: point a gun at his old friend Joe. He does this because the conflict has brought him to the point where he has to make a choice between killing his friend and letting him kill (what he thinks to be) an innocent man.

But dialogue can show conflict as well. It could be in a subtle way, like a character insulting another that just left the room. Or in a blatantly evident way, like two characters yelling at each other from across the room.

In my opinion, the most interesting conflict of the movie is the one between Mr. Orange and Nice guy Eddie because it follows the flow of the story. As the problems, the danger, the risks, and the tension increase, so does the conflict between those two. And it is ENTIRELY expressed through dialogue since neither of them does something to hurt the other.

The first time they interact with each other is when Mr. Orange is telling the fake story to Joe, Mr. White, and Eddie.

Eddie asks him two questions about seemingly pointless details that imply that he doesn’t believe the story. Mr. Orange finds a way to deflect the questions both times but he keeps repeating “anyway” and trying to bring back the attention to the story.

It’s not evident to the characters that Orange’s story is fake, but it’s evident to the audience that Eddie’s questions caught Orange off guard.

The second time we see them talking to each other is during the scene in the car, where Eddie tells the story about the black cocktail waitress.

Mr. Orange interrupts Eddie twice, both times to ask him about details that have nothing to do with the actual story. Eddie doesn’t make a scene but it’s evident that he is pretty annoyed by his questions.

You can also notice that Mr. Orange is never shown laughing at Eddie’s jokes, even when all the other characters are laughing, he is out of the frame.

The third time is during the tipping scene. Mr. Orange tries to take back the dollar he put in for the tip and Eddie immediately stops him by banging his hands on the table. Eddie is trying to assert his dominance with an imperative command

“Hey leave the dollars there”

The last time they speak is where the conflict arrives at the climax.

Again, their interaction revolves around a story: the one that Mr. Orange tells about Mr. Blonde, which is half truth and half lie.

Eddie immediately spots the lie since he doesn’t believe that Mr. Blonde, a man who went to jail for his father, could ever decide to betray them. The insinuation that his old friend Vince was plotting to kill him is so offensive that he even starts yelling.

Mr. Orange, caught off guard again, swears on his mother and raises his voice as well. He keeps denying to be a cop but he doesn’t have any other arguments to support his defense.

Tarantino is a master or characterization through dialogue. He gives his character’s lines that poke the audience’s empathy and immediately makes us recognize their feelings:

frustration

“Don’t make me do this Joe! Don’t make me do this!”

anger

“HE’S JUST GONNA DECIDE OUT OF THE FUCKING BLUE TO RIP US OFF?!”

guilt

“I’m a cop. I’m sorry”


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