Expressive Dialogue, Part Two: Stammers, Accents, and Affectations

First published in Comixpedia, March 2006

Last month, I talked about some of the basics of keeping character dialogue distinct, such as by maintaining an awareness of the different sorts of words that different characters would be apt to use.  This month, I’m continuing the discussion with a look at some of the more stylistic choices you can make in crafting dialogue.

It’s very rare that anyone writes truly naturalistic dialogue.  Hardly anyone attempts to capture all the false starts, stammers, run-on sentences, “ums,” and “ahs” that typify actual real-life conversation.  In real life, most of these non-verbal utterances are meaningless space fillers; in writing dialogue, the goal is to convey ideas and personalities, not to make a study of contemporary vernacular linguistics.

Used thoughtfully, though, with an eye toward expressing a character’s emotional state (rather than simply out of the habit of trying to capture “realistic” speech), these tics can be used to add further nuance to dialogue.  A simple “um” can mean a lot of things; it can express confusion, forgetfulness, disdain, shock, or any of countless other causes for being at a loss for words.  What’s important to remember, though, is that different people find themselves at a loss for words for very different reasons and to different degrees.  Some characters are unflappable, always knowing precisely what they want to say in any given situation, rarely leaning on non-verbal crutches.  Others are naturally nervous, frequently losing the thread of speech, falling instead to “um”s and “ah”s in a vain attempt to communicate.  Some intentionally use non-verbal utterances a form of avoidance; for instance, in Spike’s Templar, Arizona, when talking to his abrasive editor, Benjamin uses them to acknowledge the editor without having to actually talk to him.

Just as there’s no reason to capture every little stutter, there’s also no reason to commit every variation in pronunciation to paper (or pixels, as the case may be).  This tells you nothing about who the character is.  Yes, it can signal the reader as to where the character’s from, but that’s a background detail, not a personality trait.  And if the character’s ethnic or geographic origin plays a significant role in who they are, then that will be expressed through their personal values and behaviors, not through the funny way they say “hello.”  In most instances, trying to capture an accent in dialogue is just going to make the dialogue difficult to read, as readers are forced to translate your phonetic spellings into understandable words.  Not to mention the risk you take of alienating readers if your representation is stereotypical rather than accurate.

Of course, none of this applies if you’re talking about an affected accent.  If a character is knowingly speaking in an unnatural voice, there is usually a definable, character-driven reason for it, and so this needs to be made clear to readers.  Take, for instance, Jackie in T Campbell’s Fans, who often speaks with a heavy English accent, despite not being English.  Within Jackie’s long pattern of insecurity and attention-seeking behavior, her false accent is a clear expression of her desire to be a more compelling person than her natural self.  And if the textual representation of her accent seems exaggerated and annoying, that’s because her accent is exaggerated and annoying.  It’s one of the reasons why several of the other characters in the comic don’t like her.

Of course, false accents aren’t the only sort of speech affectation a character can display.  Other commonly seen affectations include characters who routinely misuse large words or characters who never use contractions.  (That last is particularly common for robots—contractions apparently being a more difficult concept for robots to grasp than metaphor or idiom, for some strange reason.)  Often, these affectations are used simply to give characters visible distinctions from one another.  As with false accents, though, if an affectation is to provide a character with something more than arbitrary novelty, an understanding of why he or she adopted that affectation is necessary.

Dialects are a bit trickier, since they combine pronunciation with issues of vocabulary and word choice.  But again, the pronunciation isn’t really relevant to the character.  Authenticity, however, may demand some adjustments in word choice.  If your character is from Brooklyn, for instance, that doesn’t mean you have to spell the number between two and four as “tree” every time he says it.  But if that character walks into a pizza shop and orders “a meatball grinder and a can of pop,” you’re going to strain credibility.  At the same time, this doesn’t mean you have to throw in every bit of regional jargon you can think of.  An overabundance of these superficial trappings can grow tiresome very quickly, especially if they rely on inaccurate stereotypes.  Not every southern woman calls people “sugar.”  Not every valley kid abuses the word “dude.”  Your character might—but that’s a choice to make with some consideration.

Of course, there are exceptions to all of this.  If your story actually is a cultural study, for instance, steeped in the nuances of a particular region, then a closer approximation of that regions dialect is probably called for.  But it better be a dialect you’re intimately familiar with if you hope to create something both believable and respectful of the people you’re writing about.

And then there’s the dialect of one—the stylized speech that comes from the heart of the character, with only incidental origins in a particular region.  For example, I wouldn’t necessarily know where any of the characters in Spike’s Templar, Arizona live if it wasn’t in the title of the comic.  But when Reagan delivers a line like, “G’wan upstairs.  I’m comin’ for th’ both-a you in ten minutes.  She’s gettin’ walked t’class whether she’s ready or not,” it’s not because she’s from Templar, Arizona.  It’s because she’s got a big, brash, indomitable personality, and nobody’s going to make her put a third letter in the word “the” if she doesn’t want it there.  Her dialogue is brimming with personality, and the dialect stems from who Reagan is, not where she’s from.