Self-editing masterclass snapshots: accents and making a character sound distinct in dialogue

guardThis week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure, endings and characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write. When I posted on Tuesday I forgot there would also be an Undercover Soundtrack to disturb the sequence, so here, slightly later than trailered, is Masterclass Snapshots part 4.

Lee carson

Regional accents to make a character sound distinct

One writer had his characters encounter people with strong local dialects. He asked how he should render their speech.

We discussed why he wanted to do this. He explained that it was to include a flavour of the setting and emphasise that the main characters were in unfamiliar territory. The odd speech was one good way to show this – with caution. Strange spellings or contractions will trip up the reader if overused. We discussed other ways of achieving this effect – perhaps by showing local customs and attitudes, lifestyles and so on. All of this will create a sense of a different culture.

This led to another good discussion – how do you make characters look distinct through their dialogue? Favourite phrases are useful, and that might be a way to show foreignness too. Habitual gestures are also good.

Humour styles are a very interesting way to differentiate people. (Curse words too, but some writers might not explore this very thoroughly.) I often see manuscripts where writers have given all their characters the same sense of humour, which makes them look like clones. In reality, you could take any group of people and they’ll all have their individual ways of expressing humour. Some enjoy wordplay. Some will try to grab attention and be the joker of the group. Some will be understated and enjoy the odd ironic quip. These are all ways to use dialogue to create a three-dimensional, distinct character.

nyn2 2014 sml(There’s more about this in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated, including a discussion of phonetic Glaswegian.)

Thanks for the pic Lee Carson

Tomorrow: editing is more than tweaking the language

Have you had difficulty making your characters sound distinct? How have you tackled this?

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  1. #1 by Carol Riggs on July 31, 2014 - 3:05 pm

    Hey, I never thought of differing senses of humor. Great point! I bet most of my characters are humor clones; will have to keep an eye on this from now on. Thanks. :)

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 1, 2014 - 2:30 pm

      Thanks, Carol. I first realised it when I was editing manuscripts. I wondered about all the ways in which characters sound unintentionally similar – and it struck me that their humour styles were a major part of their self-expression. It’s as distinctive as their clothing or other more visible qualities.Have fun creating your people!

  2. #3 by Teddi Deppner on August 1, 2014 - 3:16 am

    Great ideas, Roz. The main characters in my current WIP are different enough personalities and backgrounds that it feels natural to make their speech different. Still, I think there’s more I could do.

    I really liked your pointers on humor, favorite phrases and gestures. Many of my friends and family members have phrases they “over-use” to the point of being distinctive. And yet I overlooked that idea until you mentioned it. Thank you!

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 1, 2014 - 2:32 pm

      Hi Teddi – nice to see you again! It’s good that you already have a strong sense of your characters’ individuality from the inside perspective. If you know how it feels to be them, you’re half-way to finding the outward trappings that will feel right.

  3. #5 by Keith Skinner on August 1, 2014 - 4:20 pm

    All good points, Roz. I particularly agree with taking care with dialects. As someone writing historical fiction, I see a lot of bad dialogue, primarily where the writer is generous with the apostrophes and creative spelling. My WIP includes characters from a variety of ethnic groups and differing levels of literacy. I made the conscious decision to avoid phonetic spelling and punctuation and rely instead on the pattern of speech and use of phrases that could help identify the ethnicity or lack of education. This has to be done carefully so as not to cast the character in the wrong light or turn them into a caricature. Some people don’t use contractions. Some people may misuse certain words. Some people always respond with a pat phrase. Revealing those patterns in the dialogue can help define the character and differentiate that person from other characters. The important thing is to use a fine touch. The reader will pick up on it and develop that character’s voice in her mind as she’s reading by using a few well-place cues from the writer.

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 1, 2014 - 8:15 pm

      Keith, I really like the points you’re making here. I haven’t seen anyone single out the use of contractions, but you’re right. They’re as distinct as the character’s vocabulary, use of slang, use of archaisms or younger language. And your remark about the fine touch is spot-on. Often the reader doesn’t need to be able to identify your techniques consciously. They simply need to let it sink in. Thanks for stopping by!

      • #7 by raizscanlon on August 9, 2014 - 8:37 am

        I really liked how in True Grit (the remake), they spoke without any (or seemingly any) contractions! In my series, the characters from a parallel world, who appear to be less modern in their material ways (but not in their thinking), speak without any contractions (except the possessive ‘s’, which they use, and I don’t know if it’s really a contraction or not!).

        In the latest one I have a Russian character, and that was fun to write dialog hearing the pigeon-English in my head! But I didn’t misspell a single word (no ‘haf’ or ‘hav’ etc). An earlier, more amateur version of me would probably have tried to make him sound Russian with phonetic spelling … yikes!

        Thank goodness for wonderful help, such as we have here … thanks, Roz!

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