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The Written Word Feb 2009

Are Your Characters Overacting?


The dictionary defines melodrama as a movie or play characterized by extravagant theatricality and by the predominance of plot or physical action over characterization. 


In a story, it is dialogue or scenes that make characters behave in ways a real person would not.  In other words, the characters "ham it up."


Think about the following scene:


A woman rushes from a burning house and runs into the arms of a firefighter screaming, "Fireman, fireman!  You must save my child!  She is crippled, and all I have left since her father ran away with the maid last year. Please hurry!  You simply must save her!"


Does that woman seem to be a real person?  No, she is overacting. The scene calls for an outcry, not a speech.  Wouldn't she scream, "Help! My baby's still inside!" as she runs down the steps? 


Melodrama can creep into character thoughts.  He was my hero, the only man I will ever love!  Why did it have to end this way? Why did he run off with my little sister?


I can't speak for all women, but that would not be my thoughts. Where is the anger and rage at betrayal?  Doesn't the woman want to get even, at least in her imagination?  The flowery thoughts about a lost love are out of place. Again, the character is overacting.


In the old movie serials, the widowed heroine faced "a fate worse than death" if she could not come up with the rent. The evil landlord would twirl his mustache while leering at her and offer a solution, supposedly, marriage, to which, she would cry, "No! A thousand times no! I'd rather die than say yes!"  Then, with her baby in her arms, she would rush out into a blizzard so the hero could rescue her.


The characters are hamming it up. In real life, she might marry him or murder him, but she would not rush into a blizzard with her child.


While the overuse of exclamation points is a clue, melodrama may be hard to detect until a writer is used to looking for it. Be certain the characters are behaving, speaking and thinking as someone in the same situation might do in real life.


Next time: The exclamation mark