Using Vernacular and Speech Patterns to Write Well-Developed Characters
While reading, have you ever found yourself scratching your head, completely lost as to who was speaking because all of the characters “sound” the same? Have you read more than one book by an author, only to find that the new characters sound exactly like different ones from a previous book? And although dialogue tags exist for a reason, isn’t it nice when writing is so strong you can tell which character is speaking without the standard he said/she said?
In acting school, I learned that little details turn everyday characters into fascinating ones. Using unique manners of speech, which can range from under-developed grammar skills to scholarly prose, is an excellent tool to bring characters to life. Truth be told, there are so many ways to express personality through dialogue that there is little reason for characters to sound alike.
So how do you avoid creating vernacular clones without turning humans into cartoons? While there are a lot of tricks writers use to convey character, the big secret is in the little things.
When designing Love’s Forbidden Flower, it was important to me that readers could absorb little things that made the characters seem real. Lily, and her brother, Donovan, frequently use contractions when speaking. Their parents, however, rarely use them, if ever. This was one subliminal way of conveying how the liberal and relaxed Lily and Donovan were different from their conservative parents. It also showed how comfortable they were with each other and who they were as people. If Lily and Donovan used slang common to their generation, it would further set them apart from others, but it could also make them seem less savvy and mature then I wanted; thus, their use of slang was kept at a minimum while liberally contracting words implied a level of comfort, both in dialogue between two characters and as Lily told her tale to readers.
Donovan is often cocky—sometimes a little too much so—but to say he is cocky and leave it at that is not enough. Donovan is also a romantic, so his actions need to be supported by dialogue reflective of his personality. The following segments illustrate this:
*“His hand graced her cheek as he gazed soulfully into her eyes. He told her that he loved her and that he would never hurt her again.”
*“His hand graced her cheek as he gazed soulfully into her eyes. ’I love you. I’ll never hurt you again.’”
*“His hand graced her cheek as he gazed soulfully into her eyes. ‘I’ve always loved you, and I promise with every bit of my being that you will never hurt again.’”
The first example does not let the character speak. The second merely gives him words. The third is what makes Donovan who he is.
The most obvious example of voice difference in Love’s Forbidden Flower is found in Christopher. The fact that he goes by the name “Christopher” and not “Chris” already sets him apart from the norm. Since I wanted to show a chivalrous and gentlemanly side of this rather roister-doister young man, he never refers to Lily other than by her full name, Lilyanna. (Donovan often calls her Lil, another intentional distinction that shows the comfort level of their relationship.) The reasoning for Christopher calling Lily by her full name is more than whimsy and is therefor explained towards the end of the book.
Christopher is a bit of an off-kilter character. He is (possibly a little too) proud of his British upbringing, and he frequently uses British slang. So instead of him saying, “Damn it!” he would say, “Bugger!” Since he was usually the only Brit around, the vernacular made is obvious that Christopher was the one speaking. Also, his incomparable voice gave him richness that he would elsewise lack. When the aspects that have influenced Christopher’s vocal mannerisms are revealed, they not only round him out, they also add paint onto the canvas in the reader’s mind.
Occasionally I did need to write in aspects of his dialect, such as how sometimes Mancunians like him often say “me Mum” instead of “my Mom”. This is seen as enriching the character, because me and mum are real words. However, if you take it too far, your characters may sound like Elmer Fudd. While reading “wrascally wrabbit” once is amusing, leaving readers to decipher paragraph upon paragraph of accent will likely have them exchanging your book for a remote control. In fact, many seasoned writers suggest not writing in an accent and simply using descriptors to convey the sound. So instead of, “Y’all ned ta git yurselves ta bed”, it is better to state, “When he said, ‘Y’all need to get yourselves to bed’ his thick Texas accent caused his words to resonate deep in my gut.” The later sentence is easier to read, softer on the “ears”, and the use of y’all conveys character. Taking it a step further to, ‘Y’all need to git yourselves to bed’ also allows the character shine through without overplaying the written accent.
While descriptors are a great way for readers to picture characters, for the full experience, it is equally important to “hear” characters as well.