For those of you new to this WordPress site, this site is about me and my writing – and a little about my role-playing, as well. It gives readers a chance to sample my work before purchasing it on the Kindle store; and gives me the chance to say a little about the genesis of each novel, or about the process of writing in general.
Character speech: Some of my novels are speech heavy. Some have very little at all. But, when I do have characters speak, I try to make them sound real. Even if I am writing some bizarre fantasy novel set in a different dimension.
Here I will attempt to explain my approach to certain elements of character speech. Always try for character, rather than caricature.
Verbal foibles: Some characters should have verbal tics, ones which make the way that they speak a little different to other people. I tend to avoid malapropisms, but there is no reason why you cannot use them, but in moderation (unless you are writing some comedy). The same for Spoonerisms.
But a lot of people do have certain mannerisms in their speech, even if only inserting an occasional um or er. Speech in novels should reflect that fact. Here is an example from my first gas-lamp fantasy novel, He Sees His World In Red:
“Is everything packed?” Briggs asked, after the meal, while they were enjoying one of Vishwanath’s spiced coffees. Briggs had learned not to try to engage Prenderghast in important discussions while they were eating.
“I believe that I have gathered together every article that we will require.” Prenderghast said.
“Look, um,” Briggs began, raising an issue that had been on his mind for sometime, “everything that you’ve done for me, helping me hunt the Ripper, feeding me, what I mean to say is, well, I don’t think that I can ever repay…”
Prenderghast raised his hand to halt Briggs there and then.
Um is only used once, as a pause, with Briggs thanking Prenderghast for his assistance. Briggs had had things on his mind, and people will sometimes insert such pauses in such situations.
The words which should be used, generally, should be the little words like um and er. Another option is to use dots – …… – to suggest a pause in a character’s speech where no other sound has been inserted. Or come up with your own way of showing such things.
Accents: You need to be very careful when trying to imitate foreign accents, so that your novel does not come to resemble some script for Allo Allo. That does not mean that you should not have a go at suggesting that a person is of foreign origin – just be careful when doing so.
From the Briggs and Prenderghast novel The Rift:
“I said we should not trust ze primitives.” the man in the cloak said. He had a strong accent, that Briggs first thought was French, but then reasoned must be Walloon – French-Belgian. “I ‘ave enough power myself.”
That is probably as far as you should go before the accent becomes comedic. You can get away with ze and ‘ave a couple of times; and that snippet of text tells the reader that the man had a French accent, fixing that idea in the reader’s mind.
Dropping aitches: People do drop aitches, especially in some areas of London. There is nothing wrong with having a character do that. You just need to be consistent, and not have a character say hand one minute and ‘and the next. Here is an example from The Absinthe Club, my first completed novel:
“Grab her.” shouted Drake.
“Let me go, you big ponce.” shouted ‘Spinning’ Jenny; Constable Brown had her held by her arms. “I hain’t done nothin’, that gull was askin’ to be ripped. You hain’t got nothin’ on me!”
“Calm down, Jenny.” said Drake. “You aren’t being arrested, but if you don’t co-operate I’ll sling you in the cells and leave you there all day. You can let her go now, Brown.”
“I hain’t no talker.” she said. “I’m not gonna blag on no one, no how.” She was rubbing her left arm where Brown had grabbed her.
“I only want to ask you about Sir Robert Greenslade.” said Drake.
“He ruined me, that scum.” she spat vituperatively. “‘E’s no gen’leman, he forced me he did, and he was rough.”
Not only does Jenny drop her aitches, but she makes the mistake of putting aitches on words which do not require them.
Grammar: Don’t worry about grammar within speech. A lot of people’s speech is not grammatically correct (unless they are English teachers) and I have heard plenty of people make what are considered to be mistakes, such as putting a preposition at the end of a sentence. For example, this sentence from my novella Canto:
“I did stuff which I’m not proud of.” the Liar said.
The character is immediately corrected in the book by a ‘grammar Nazi.’:
“I did stuff of which I’m not proud.” the Priest said.
“What, you too?”
“No, I’m correcting your syntax.” the Priest said. “You aren’t supposed to end a sentence with a preposition. The correct sentence should have been I did stuff of which I’m not proud.”
In fact you should have characters that regularly make grammatical errors in their speech, or do not use entire sentences. That is the way in which a lot of people talk.
Idioms: Certain characters should have a certain way of talking. Some people are terse. Others use florid sentences, which go on and on and on, never seemingly coming to an end, as though they are suffering from verbal diarrhoea. Listen to the cadences and rhythms of people’s speech – a good place for that is a public house, where you can eavesdrop on people’s conversations without any need to take part. I have often sat in such a place, while waiting for friends to turn up, and listened to what people talk about, and the way that they frame their sentences, so that I could bring a level of verisimilitude to when I use speech in my novels.
Some characters will ten to use a certain phrase quite often, as though it is their trademark. It can be something as simple as saying ‘point of order’ when they wish to stress something. in my gas-lamp fantasy novels Prenderghast quite often refers to Briggs as ‘my friend’ – apart from in the last novel, when it has become ‘old friend’. By individualising the speech of some of the characters in such a way you can help to bring them alive.
I think that I have spoken enough on speech for now.