Defining your characters through their speech

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

About R. Garrett Wilson

I am a member of the Stanislaus World Builders writing group and have participated in the FSFW writing group. I have written one drama that was based on the book of Mark and performed at my church in 2007. My story, Journeyer, is published in Analog Magazine and a novelette, The Bakrra Encounter, in the FSFW 2010 anthology, I Dreamed a Crooked Dream. I also took part in the community novel project, Stanislaus Reads and Writes, and have a chapter in their novel, Ashes in a Teardrop. Beyond writing, I enjoy road trips, photography, woodworking, watching tennis and cycling, and reading.
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One Response to Defining your characters through their speech

  1. David Oliver says:

    Great post! I would like to begin by saying that I agree with pretty much everything that you said. Oh, and thanks for the reference on your blog!

    You referenced C. Michael Fontes blog on balance, and I think that balance is an important consideration in dealing with slang, euphemisms and accents. I wrote in his blog, “A story is a dynamic beast which represents a balance in-and-of-itself between the vision of the writer and the expectations of the reader.” I believe that accents are an important part to the setting and development of worlds and character and I believe that this represents part of the writers vision. A reader will have a plethora of expectations as they read the story. Some of these expectations will be modified and given form by the writer’s choice of words and accents. For example, if an old man says, “he ain’t gots no rights,” the reader will develop expectations of the mans education and station in life. The reader will also have certain expectations even before they pick up the story such as an expectation for clarity and an expectation to fall into the world.

    So a writer needs to utilize accents (and slang and…) in order to create a deeper texture to his world and to help guide the readers understanding of the pace and characters of the story. At the same time, though, the writer must make sure his accents are not so excessive or extreme that it drives the reader away from the story. I, like most others, have read stories where the writer gives a character such a strong accent that I found it honestly difficult to follow the dialogue. The key, then, is for the writer to know his world and know his characters enough to grant them the depth of proper accents as well as know his reader base enough to know how deeply he can set those accents.

    In addition, I really liked your comments on research. Research is a tool that I think most writers, myself included, do not use to full advantage. There is an old phrase that goes something like, “a writer writes his life.” I have heard several variations of that phrase but the point behind it is that a writer can write best that which he knows. Due to the responsibilities of life, most of us will not have the opportunity to experience all the wonders the world has to offer, just as reality will prevent us from experiencing all the wonders available in speculative fiction. How then do we write something of which we know nothing of? The answer is research, well imagination and research.

    There is no better research into the world of accents then just listening to people of different accents talk. I wish there was a video conference site where writers from around the world could just chat to get a better grasp of the various accents of the world around them.

    A final note to end on, I haven’t taken the time yet to read your other reference sources yet, but I would like to offer one of my own. Bill Bryson wrote a book called “The Mother Tongue” with the subtext “English and how it got that way.” I would recommend the whole book on general principle, but for those who wish just a quick reference in relation to this blog, I would suggest Chapter 6, pp 84-99. This chapter is about pronunciation and really opens the eyes to the variety of accents. I might also suggest parts of the following chapter, “varieties of English.”

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