Wednesday, April 1, 2009
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.
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.