Thursday, October 21, 2010

That's Not How I Talk!

I look at speech patterns as the writer's wardrobe department. Sure, Mark Twain could have spent a page describing Huck, but the reader won't remember the color of his eyes the next chapter over, but he will remember how Huck sounds because, well, he's always hearing it. This isn't Television, nobody notices if your character is wearing a purple sash.

Let's speak of dialect, pidgin, other languages, and just plain talkin' funny in fiction.

My thesis text, as it so often is, would be "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (Mark Twain), a more or less careful transcription of a hodge-podge of local dialects. You know it works when there are whole pages, maybe whole chapters with Huck and Jim talking without any dialog tags (Huck said, Jim said). The same, lesser or greater, is true of other characters in the book (notably the feuding families and the educated Man who scares off the lynch mob in Chapter XXII). 

So how can I get myself some distinctive character voice and reduce tag clutter?

Because I've studied up on some of the dialects and creole languages of America (for example: Gullah) I know that I am unqualified. It would become "eye language", i.e. "Eye likes yer pop-gun, thar, cherroot", and be ridiculous. So that's out.

Fortunately, for the most part I'm writing fiction set in the modern day or in a speculative near future, so I can base speech patterns off of what I hear. Often do I hear a nifty turn of phrase and extrapolate a working grammar and vocabulary out of it for a character. Just another reason to carry around a notebook.

I can fabricate it outright, informed by my knowledge of linguistics and descriptivist bent. So be it, in moderation. The book "Lived Too Long To Die" has a lot of characters, and some of them have a 'projected accent'. Yes, that's the fancy term I'm going to use.

Best of all, of course, would be incorporating languages and dialects I actually happen to be familiar with into a story. My most successful attempt of that thus far has been my short story "Moving In, Moving On" in which I weave together three languages (English, Thai, Lao) and an accurate pidgin (Thai-English) based on the character and the situation. It's a bit of flavor to the story, and sometimes a trilingual bonus.

The main point, though, is to use it in moderation and only when it enhances the character. Because if you go crazy with it, folk'll yell the title of this post at you.

By the way: the title of this post is direct from a reader, so shout-out to you-know-who, and thanks as always for your comments!


Argh, you've landed your Hindenburg spacecraft in my jungle and now you're trying to eat me sideways with your weird globe-heads. Stop doing that!

Or, wait, is that my spaceship and I've just landed in your garden and you're gently remonstrating me? Sorry, natives, this'll teach you to mess with Earth.

Alternatively, we're fighting over the first space vessel to land on this jungle planet we've all been marooned on for the last two years. It's like that Star Trek episode or the reality TV show that should have been a spin-off.

2000 Words? Yes
Short Story "Kritarchy" - almost finished
Book "Lived Too Long To Die" - in progress, approaching the Middle.
- - - -
Reading - ?



  1. Pulling off a strong dialect in fiction can be tricky. I think I usually avoid this sort of thing by just saying "he had a thick accent."

  2. I recall an excessively lazy YA book where the description was footnoted. "He had a thick accent and it was comical.* *Imagine it for yourself, you lazy kids. Then laugh."


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