Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Distinctive Speech Patterns for Your Characters

Each character in your story needs to have their own unique voice within your voice as an author. The reader will become easily bored if each character uses the exact same words or phrases. How do you make them sound different, and how do you decide what they should sound like without irritating and overwhelming?

Two of the most famous examples of authors who created unique character dialog are Mark Twain in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Reader’s either love it or hate it, but their characters have made an impression on millions over many years.

Your character’s background should include where they came from, their education, and distinct personality traits. This will give you a clue for what kind of speech patterns to look for. Each of us speaks a little different, so you can use nicknames unique to a particular character. My female protagonist’s long-time friends call her “Bon,” short for Bonny, and even “Carrot-top,” because of her red hair. Her friends in Scotland never use these terms, so it also adds a feeling of long-term familiarity between the characters.

Not all characters in a story come from the same background, even if they currently reside in the same local, so research needs to be thorough. It’s hard to do if you’ve never been there before, so reading books set in the same place and time as your book can help. Watching movies set in the time period and location help you get a feel for it, but you still have to write the dialogue so the reader understands.

When I set my book in Scotland I had to do some research because although they speak English, it’s not the same as in my native New Mexico or even the same as England. So where can you find information about how English is spoken in a unique fashion in different places?

Here are some helpful hints on how I gave my characters from Scotland and New Mexico a distinctive sound. The same can be done for most dialects and languages.

·         Visit the location. I would never have known that when ordering water in a Scottish restaurant the waiter will ask if you prefer “still” or “sparkling.” I would have no way to know that when it comes to entering and leaving a place the signs would say “way out” and “way in,” rather than “entrance” and “exit.” My Scottish characters call their phone a “mobile,” while my American characters use “cell phone.”
·         Have someone proof-read or edit that lived in the place your story is set
·         The male protagonist is very educated, but in moments of deep emotion the female protagonist, depending on the POV (point of view) will think to herself that his Scottish burr is becoming stronger. To emphasize it further, he often drops the end of words ending in “-ing,” so “feeling” becomes “feelin’.”
·         Google it. You would be surprised how many articles you’ll find about language and linguistics.
§  Wikipedia
§  Omniglot.com has a variety of pages about pronunciation and even lists of words and common phrases, some by region
§  YouTube has many videos of people speaking and also illustrating pronunciation
§  Watch movies set in the place, or better yet, made in the place you are researching
§  Articles about dialect like http://www.whoohoo.co.uk/scottish-translator.asp; lexilogos.com; and freelang.com
§  Internet lists of common slang terms for the region

Don’t go overboard with foreign words that no one understands. Make certain to italicize the phrase and offer a glossary of terms. This does not work well in Kindle or Nook format, so choose a few common terms that your characters will use and reuse. For example, Land of My Dreams is a romance so a frequently repeated phrase is “I love you.” In Scots-Gaelic (which does differ from Irish or Manx Gaelic) the phrase is Tha gaol agam ort. Give the phonetic pronunciation in your glossary, in this case, Ha gool akum orsht. I would certainly never have pronounced it like that!

Have a few phrases that will become easily recognizable to your readers, and whenever possible, try to include a translation in the text. For example, in my current WIP, the sequel to Land of My Dreams, the Scottish male protagonist uses the Scots-Gaelic for “my darling” when speaking to the American female protagonist:

Mo grĂ dh…”
My darling, the Gaelic endearment coupled with his tender smile was enough
 to make her head spin…”

The reader immediately learns what the character has said, and it becomes even more romantic to discover how the female protagonist feels about it.

The female protagonist is from New Mexico, a very distinctive region of the United States, and her speech reveals that. She uses words such as adobe, luminaria, chile and chili (the first being the uncooked variety, and the second being the cooked variety), and sopapillas, when talking about her home. She also manages to get her Scottish love hooked on New Mexican food and courageously eats haggis and Forfair Bridies.

Once you’ve written a scene where you try out some of these ideas, bounce it off a Facebook friend or someone who lives in the area you’re writing about. You can give your story the flavor of another country or a region of the United States in a way that enhances the story and makes the characters unique, without overwhelming the reader.

© Norma Gail Thurston Holtman, March 30, 2015

About the author:
Norma Gail’s debut contemporary Christian romance, Land of My Dreams, set in Scotland and New Mexico released in April 2014. She has led weekly women’s Bible studies for 19 years. Her devotionals, poetry have appeared at ChristianDevotions.us, the Stitches Thru Time blog, and in “The Secret Place.” She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, FaithWriters, Romance Writers of America, and the New Mexico Christian Novelists. She is a former RN who lives in the mountains of New Mexico with her husband of 39 years. They have two adult children.

Connect with Norma:

Book Links:
Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas Bookstore: http://store.lpcbooks.com/product/land-of-my-dreams/


  1. The research would be essential. I think it's respectful too.

  2. Very true, Mary! Whenever we write about different groups of people we must show complete respect and do thorough research. I would suggest finding either someone who has lived in that culture or who is a native to consult with.

  3. I'm bookmarking this post. Great information!

  4. I do enjoy authors who do their research into how people would actually speak. Yes, it makes their books so much more real :)

  5. I'm keeping your article handy! When I visited England, I noticed the different terms. And now that I'm writing in the historical genre, I'm dealing with language and era. It's a challenge, but a fun one.