Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Speech quirks

When writing dialogue, it’s easy to show who’s saying what, since a simple “Joe said” would do this. It’s not so easy to familiarize the readers with your character to the extent that, even without the speech tag, they know Joe would have said that particular line of dialogue, while Jane would have said something else.

Lisps, pronunciations and accents

These are prone to being abused, which is one reason writers are often cautioned against writing dialect out phonetically. I could understand the Yorkshire dialect in James Herriot’s novels, but in Richard Adams’s The Plague Dogs, the fox’s dialogue was incomprehensible (which also made it difficult to sympathize with him when a fox hunt took him out).

It’s difficult to show most accents in written dialogue, and unless this is handled carefully, it can come off as stereotyping the character. This probably won’t matter if you’re writing humor or humorous scenes, though. I loved it when Jaime gets the lisping Vargo Hoat to say “sapphires” in George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords.

Unusual pronunciations could work as well. I alternate between pronouncing “schedule” as “shedule” and “skedule”, one of which is the British way of saying the word. On the other hand, to use alternate spellings in the dialogue to show this every single time a character speaks can be distracting. Doing this just once or twice might be more effective.

Foreign words

I really like these when the foreign word is something which doesn’t have an exact or brief equivalent in English. This can be used in speculative fiction as well, since it’s easier for most of us to make up a few words than to develop an entire language. As long as the words sound alike – a language which uses a lot of vowels and soft consonants will probably sound different from, say, Tolkien’s Black Speech – this will sound realistic enough.

One caveat is that the readers should have an idea of what the foreign words mean. Another is that such words don’t descend in an avalanche on the reader. It can be confusing (and frustrating) to read a passage like, “He dropped the durmik and reached for the illinga instead. Shor! The pidril had been at it!”

Jack Vance pulled this off in his novella “The Moon Moth”, where the protagonist has to carry and use a variety of alien musical instruments on a world where everyone communicated with music. But he did so through footnotes to explain the different instruments, and now that I think back on the story, I can’t remember any of the names of those instruments.

What not to do

Having a character’s dialogue in ALL CAPS will come off as an Owen Meany impression, and won’t be very easy to read. Bolding it or setting it off by asterisks, both of which I’ve seen in speculative fiction to indicate that a non-human is speaking, can make dialogue seem cluttery. If a character refers to blood as ichor and swears by the Fallen God, I can probably tell he’s a demon without his speech being in a Gothic font as well.


Tara Maya said...

Sometimes you need asterisks or something besides quotes to distinguish telepathy from ordinary speech.

Marian Perera said...

What about just italics?

Anonymous said...

Regarding accents, I think it's usually better to make reference of it. Then the reader can simply imagine the character speaking such. Constantly using it in dialogue can be very distracting.

A few writers are quite adept at it, though.

Anonymous said...

I hate, hate spelling out dialect phonetically. Mercedes Lackey did it in one of her thief books, for the main character. I was only halfway through, and I finally gave up because it was so difficult reading, and I could hardly follow the story because I didn't always understand the dialogue.

When I see a character's dialogue in all caps, I think they're shouting. When it's in italics, I tend think they're communicating telepathically!

Loren said...

Any opinion on something like Yodaspeak? That is, verb-object-subject and object-subject-verb order instead of common orders like subject-verb-object and subject-object-verb.

This Yodaspeak-generator site turns
I am speaking Yodaspeak
Speaking Yodaspeak, I am

I was reminded of someone in certain messageboards who has posted this about an odd affectation in certain of her posts:

Hmmm. It bes not Gollum/Smeagol though you bes not the first to thinksy. Its humanspeak bes modelled after the "pagans" in the Thief series PC games. They sound like it thinksy/feelsy so we adopts it. :D Makes translation into humanspeak easier.

You need not "buy" anything, as it bes no sellsies. It can assure you its experiential reality will continue to be precisely the same whether you accord it the same integrity and authenticity you would want accorded to yourself or not.

Marian Perera said...

I've been toying with a speech quirk where a character always puts the adjective after the noun, e.g. "I'll take the dress long red and the coat white."

JH said...

"Scrambled syntax" of that sort can be an effective way of indicating that a character is foreign (with respect to whatever the "normal" language and culture is). As long as you keep the rules of word order as consistent as a real grammar, you might not even need to sprinkle made-up foreign words in.

writtenwyrdd said...

"Doing this just once or twice might be more effective." I have to disagree on that point because teh reader relies on the written speech to 'hear' it, IMO. I think the best way to indicate dialect is a consistent pattern in the character's speech. if readers do know who is speaking without a tag, you've done that successfully.

I think common slang like 'ain't' and 'gonna' can be used quite successfully, in particular.

Marian Perera said...

Hi writtenwyrdd,

You're right about the common slang being better when used consistently. I was thinking more of unusual spellings like the skedule/shedule example, or of dropping h's to show a character is speaking with a French accent.

Those are unusual enough to be noticeable, whereas in something like Firefly I barely notice the characters' cowboy-speak ain'ts because that's something I take for granted - and so the writer can use those consistently.

Also found an article on the subject when browsing a fanfic site.

Loren said...

I've thought a little, and I've concluded that such speech quirks ought not to be too different from normal speech. Turning adjective-noun into noun-adjective while leaving the rest the same is not too difficult to understand once one recognizes the pattern, but more drastic rearrangements can be difficult to follow, like

I a little thought have, and too normal speech from different be to not ought, that, I concluded have.