Lately, there has been a lot of discussion in my circle about speech. Not just word choice, accents, or colloquial, but speech as a whole.
- This is too robotic
- No one talks like this
- He’s over-the-top cheesy
- I don’t like this accent
- I can’t see this word used here
- This phrase takes me out of the setting
- Where are the accents?
- It’s hard to write accents and it’s hard to read them
- A few colloquial words help a story
- Who says this?
- These new/strange words take me out of a story
Without dragging you through all the conversations and arguments I have had, and without pulling you (kicking and screaming) through my thought process (scary – don’t want to go there), I will give you my conclusions about speech use, and I open my comment section for opinions and (civilized) debate.
Word choices, accents, colloquial words, pacing, contractions, and slang all give characters, and the narrator, a voice (yes, voice – I can’t think of a better term). A properly chosen voice can put a character into a specific time and place while a poorly chosen voice can ruin a moment or a story.
Everyone writes with a specific voice, even if they don’t think they do:
- contraction usage (“We’re not going in there” is different than “We aren’t going in there”)
- spelling (“dialog” compared to “dialogue”)
- modified words (“I don’t want to go to…” as “I don’t wanna go to…” or “I don’t want ta’ go to…” or “I ain’t goin’ to…”)
- word choice (“One meter” versus “One yard” versus “One and a half cubits” versus “A walking stride”)
- slang (“Wicked” versus “The bomb” versus “Kickin’” versus “Cool” versus “Awesome” versus “Bomb Diggity”)
- expletives (won’t go there)
The list goes on. To assume you don’t write in a voice, and therefore refuse to understand you are placing your characters in a specific time and place, is to deny your readers the full experience of the story being told. You must change your characters voice if they are not from the same place or time as you or the realness of the character (and the story) goes away.
Now, if you are on board with me so far, I have to push the other way a little. If you are intimately familiar with another voice than the one which is natural to you, then, by all means, write it out. However, if you are not gifted that way, hold yourself back from going too far. Using a voice you, and maybe your readers, are unfamiliar with is a matter of balance. If you use too much slang and modify too many words, it may (will) do two things: be hard for the reader to read, and prove how much you don’t know.
When using alternate voices, you need to pick certain clues that can give the feel you want without distracting from the actual story. For these clues, go to YouTube or Bing’s Video search, and find people who talk the way you want to have your characters talking. Trying searching for someone explaining accents and slang in certain areas. If possible, call the Chamber of Commerce or a University in the area of interest and just chat with someone. Pay attention to what they are saying, how they are saying it, and which differences are important for giving the right feel.
Once you have what you think you need, practice. Try saying the lines aloud. Try writing the lines and having friends and family read it. Quiz people you are trying it on to see if it is too much or too little. If you aren’t getting it right, go back to your sources and find different clues. Experiment!
You don’t need to include everything, but giving a taste of an accent, a localized slang, or anything that puts the character (and the reader) into another time or place is well worth the effort of research and experimentation. Putting the correct voice on a character is as important as the clothes they wear or the fears they hold – it is a part of who they are.
For more, read Guest Blogger: Ninja Cups and the Path to a Better World on P.D. Wright’s blog (by David Oliver) and Balance on C. Michael Fontes blog.
Other resources are:
“Using Slang and Accent When Writing Fictional Dialogue” by Todd Eastman
“How to Write Dialogue for Fictional Characters With a British Accent” bye Valerie David
“Do You Have an Accent?” on Readable Blog