Character Question: Do You Know Me?
by Sally J. Walker
In “My Fair Lady” Professor Henry Higgins, Linguist Extraordinaire, proclaimed he could identify a person’s origins right down to country, region and city just by listening to the person. There is an essential truth to that concept that fiction writers need to learn and practice. However, there are many influences on speech patterns beyond where a character learned early language skills.
Think about yourself. Where were you when you were a crawling infant and unsteady toddler hearing words around you? Did your speech pattern change as you learned more about grammar and vocabulary? What happened when you delved into the adult world, traveled, learned a profession? Is English your second language OR have you learned one or more foreign languages? Finally, what are your perceptions of accents, be they regional or foreign? Have you formulated prejudices or personality expectations according to the proper grammar and vocabulary people use?
Linguists study the science of language, including phonetics, morphology (inflection, derivation, and composition), and syntax (patterns of words and phrases forming sentences). Why are all those concepts important to a writer? Because you want each character to be vividly unique. Based on the principle that you will do a Character Profile for each important character, you will know where they were born and what influenced their language skills from infancy through their toddler years. Yes, education and deliberate voice training CAN change sound but You-the-Writer can instill the FLAVOR of origins through the words you choose for them to speak, the grammatical order of the words and the idioms (and even obscenities) you insert.
There are two more issues writers need to grasp: the etymology or history of words and make-believe languages. Of course, if you are writing a period story, you must have the storytelling integrity to verify that the words coming out of your characters’ mouths are authentic to that period. Nothing kills credibility like a word that appeared in the 20th century is spoken by an 18th century person. Well, I guess a child speaking like an adult would be just as bad or everyone sounding the same. Totally made-up languages (like, STAR TREK Klingon or James Cameron’s AVATAR Navi) are a different and much more complex matter. Fantasy writers wallow like cats in catnip as they write their own rules of grammar and vocabulary. The point is that they HAVE such a reference for consistency sake.
Do you see an important relationship between authentic characters and the way they speak? Credibility resides in word meaning, sentence structure and sound cadence, be they an alien like Yoda, a sheriff from Mississippi or an Irishman from Dublin. Just because a person—real or imaginary—speaks differently from others (including the reader) around him or her doesn’t mean their intellect, emotional state and motivation cannot be understood. How well they are understood totally depends on your careful depiction.
A writer’s two key caveats in a character’s dialogue are 1) consistency throughout a story and 2) authenticity and accuracy of sound without cracking the window of illusion with complexity that has to be repeatedly interpreted.
In the upcoming (Mar 2-29) course NUANCES OF DIALOGUE I am going to dig even deeper into the many facets of dialogue to help writers analyze and recreate credible speech patterns that a reader can mentally “hear” and believe.