Monday, June 27, 2011

Hearing Voices - Vernacular

A few years ago, I edited a manuscript that had characters from all over the world – different worlds, in fact. Each spoke in his own particular slang and it didn’t take long for my eyes to cross. The plot held a grandmother from the Deep South, teenagers, foreigners, biblical characters, fantasy characters, and even talking animals. None had distinct, strong voices, even though the author had tried to convey speech patterns in the dialogue. Perhaps from trying too hard, the writing was terribly difficult to read, even for an adult. A youngster wouldn’t have gotten through ten pages without giving up.

What went wrong in this scenario? Most importantly, the writer had not created a strong and simple vocabulary for each character. Most of the time, less is more when it comes to writing vernacular.

For example, if one character uses the regional “y’all” for “you all”, stick to that. Don’t throw in y’ar and ye and youse. It’s especially important if your biblical characters are using “ye” and your city slicker says “youse” a lot. Give each character a specific word that only they use. You can keep your characters very distinct by assigning key slang, regional phrases, and even grammatical errors to their individual vocabularies.

Also be sure you’re using slang that is appropriate for age groups of the time. Urban Dictionary is a great way to check modern expressions, especially to make sure you’re not saying something age inappropriate. Create this speech dictionary before your characters open their mouths and you’ll have clearer writing and fewer changes during revision.

In a future post, I’ll introduce an author who has character voice down to a fine art. Exquisitely spare, Donis Casey’s main character, Alafair Tucker leaves no doubt you’ve just met a strong, kind, curious, intelligent farm woman from Oklahoma. The Alafair Tucker mystery series, set in the early 1900s, creates a distinct and strong sense of place and is firmly rooted in its regional history. Stay tuned for a review of the latest novel, Crying Blood, and an interview with Donis about developing strong voices that flow easily into the modern day. 

Dani Greer is founding member of the Blood-Red Pencil, teaches authors how to build their own blog book tours with occasional online classes, offers developmental editing services (with a special interest in historic voice and accuracy), and is special projects coordinator for Little PicklePress, the coolest kidlit publisher ever!

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  1. Great tips here. Especially about the consistency of the dialog.

    This is something I struggle with a bit. I'm not an extreme case (I hope) but it's something I have to keep my eye on in my work.

  2. Wise words, Dani. We need to have our characters' voices clearly heard but also remember our readers' patience has limits.

  3. You should hear the voices I hear in my head ... I get a lot of space in a crowd when I bang my forehead and yell, "Be quiet ... all of you!"

  4. Scary thoughts, Christopher! :D

  5. Great advice, Dani.

    About "youse" ... if I read that, I would pronounce it (in my head) as if it rhymed with "mouse." I would probably have spelled it as "yous." But that doesn't look right either. Guess I'd have to ask someone living up north.

  6. @ Christopher,
    I don't want to hijack this thread but that so made me want to do a Taxi Driver impression.

  7. i try not to mention all my "voices" in public too much - especially when in the presence of medical professionals - they wouldn't understand!

    thanks so much for such great tips!

  8. Looks like assorted spelling variations:

    Since it's incorrect, how can one prove a "correct" spelling? I ask you...

  9. I LOVE your tip about keeping it simple because, though it makes perfect sense, it's almost counterintuitive: writers may feel as if they are skillfully capturing the vernacular if they include a large vocabulary. But you're right. It can be confusing to do so, especially with a lot of characters.

    I'll keep this in mind in my writing and in my editing.

    Thanks for the great post and for the great blog!

  10. Great post! I think it's easy for a writer deeply entrenched in the minds of her character's to forget that readers don't have that inside knowledge. They're not going to stick with flat voices and inconsistency in dialog. There are too many other great books out there to read.

    Great tip on the Urban Dictionary!

  11. Good one, Dani. It is very difficult to decipher vernacular-heavy dialogue. That just serves to "bump" the reader out of the story, while he/she tries to figure out what the characters are saying!

  12. It's definitely a sign of our times to want visual reading ease. It's hubbo's birthday today, and he asked for - and got - Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. I told him to feel free and read aloud to me, because I cannot handle Twain's dialogue, at least not eye-to-page. Mercy!

  13. There are lots of ways of defining voice, some more subtle than others. One character could be given to florid sentences, another the reverse: clipped sentences. One could shy away from contractions. Another could like swearing A character could be given to deference. Another, imperative commands. And so on and so on.

    I also find it useful to voice a character in ways I *don't* speak. That is, change the wording away from how I myself would put it. This creates a more subtle distinction in voice.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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