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Tracie - 23 - proud resident of SoCal - Gamer - Comic Nerd - Reader - Writer - Psych Student - Disneyland AP - Coffee Is Like A Hug - Anime/Manga - CSI Nut - OUAT Obsessed - In Love with HIMYM
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girl are you a fox because i don’t know what the fuck you’re saying
fun fact: you don’t cure depression by telling me i have nothing to be sad about
another fun fact: you dont cure anxiety by just getting up and doing whatever it is that makes you anxious
and yet another fun fact: you can’t stop panic attacks by taking a deep breath & relaxing
When was the last time you stood in a grocery store and just listened to everything around you? Depending on where you are, you probably heard all sorts of different things. Especially if you’re in a city, you’ll likely hear all sorts of different accents. You’ll hear mothers tell off their children, you’ll hear friends laughing with each other, you’ll hear one cashier make some snarky comment. You’ll certainly hear your share of Valley Girl impersonations.
And yet, when you crack open a book, chances are all the characters will speak in the same way. Dialogue and speech patterns are some of the hardest things to duplicate in literature. Part of that is because of the lack of actual sound - you can say that somebody has a Russian accent all you want, but your readers can’t hear it. For the same reason, writers duplicate what they’re used to reading - not what they’re used to hearing. For example, if you’re reading a story by an American that uses a lot of weird little British terms, chances are they’ve been reading mostly British fiction.
The main goal for dialogue isn’t to have all your characters be witty, or have them all be shy, or have them all be anything. Your characters’ speech patterns should be as diverse as your characters themselves. With that in mind, here’s some tips and tricks to help change up your character’s speech patterns.
1. Catchphrases and Verbal Tics
Ever notice that one phrase or that one word your friend won’t stop using? For a long time, I couldn’t stop saying “S’all good.” It wasn’t even “It’s all good.” That doesn’t reflect the reality. It was “S’all good.” A friend of mine used “Fair enough” so often that my mum actually tried to get her to replace it with “That would be lovely, thank you.”
These are great ways to characterize people in books and stories, too. Many of these verbal tics are also connected to locality and accent, so they can give a real sense of place. Ending sentences with “eh” is (stereotypically but also real) Canadian; ending them with “yeah?” can be Canadian or British. Even within Britain, Ron’s “bloody hell” and Hermione’s “Honestly!” invoke complete differently accents.
But be careful! While a few well-placed tics can be good, overdoing them can make your dialogue horrible and clunky. Also, don’t have characters share tics unless they’re meant to share a locale, place of origin or something else important. Otherwise the main purpose of tics - to easily identify a character even when not tagged - is lost.
2. Types of Words and Sentences
Building off of the first tip, Ron and Hermione from Harry Potter not only have different verbal tics - they speak completely differently. Hermione, as a precocious bookworm, uses a lot of bigger words and more complex sentences in the first novel than either Harry or Ron. In contrast, Ron is very blunt and to the point. Hermione will preface something with “I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before! I had this checked out for light reading, and guess what I found…” and Ron will just go, “Hey, check this out.”
Take note - Hermione isn’t using 7-syllable words. She’s just talking more, and using different structures. Some people will use more complex words, especially if you’re writing scientists or academics. And it’s just as revealing to character when somebody doesn’t understand that jargon. Cosima and Sarah in Orphan Black are great examples of this, when Cosima starts talking sciencey and Sarah’s just like ‘wot?’.
The trick with this kind of differentiation is to make sure that it doesn’t just make other characters come across as stupid. Harry and Ron aren’t stupid compared to Hermione - their skills are just in completely different things. So while their diction and vocabulary will be worlds apart from hers (and theirs from each other, especially when taking wizarding vs. muggle jargon into account), it shouldn’t come across as ‘caveman meets astronaut’.
My general advice with written accents is not to bother. Sometimes it works out, but more often than not, the result is racist, classist and/or annoying to read. However, sometimes dialect - the specific words and slang, rather than the accent itself - is important to include. And other times, there’s a specific voice you want to evoke.
The easiest way to do this, especially for those who don’t know accents/dialects very well, is simply to describe it.
"This is so disappointing!" she cried in a thick Yorkshire brogue, holding the shoe aloft.
This can be kind of boring though. Apostrophes, like italics, can be used to give the reader an idea of the cadence of somebody’s voice.
"This is so disappointin’!” she cried in a thick Yorkshire brogue, holding the shoe aloft.
What you want to avoid is something like this:
"This es so des-app-oint-n’!” she cried in a thick Yorkshire brogue, holding the shoe aloft.
It’s hard to read and doesn’t add anything particularly special to our understanding of what this woman (for the curious, Minister Mason from Snowpiercer) sounds like. (NB: I know JK Rowling did it for Hagrid. I still find it distasteful.) Dialect, however, means using the words and not necessarily using phonetic spelling. For example, a Yorkshire girl in your story, especially one from a few decades, ago, might use ‘nowt’ for nothing, ‘nay’ for no and ‘thou/thee’ instead of ‘you’. In contrast, someone from the American South may talk about having ‘barbecue’ (instead of the act of barbecuing something), say ‘y’all’ and talk about people ‘a-hootin’ and a-hollerin”. These are really recognizable ways to give your character an accent without spelling it out on the page.
This is a drastically overlooked facet of character development, and has more to do with speech patterns than most people think. What kind of sense of humour does one character have as opposed to another? One person might attempt to tell jokes and fail at it (think Marlin from Finding Nemo), another might insert bad puns into everything, another might just make weird, zany connections, another might be a deadpan snarker who pokes fun at everything. All of these are written in completely opposite ways. Compare:
"H-hey guys, you know what’s black and white and red all over?….Me neither, I forgot. Never mind."
"Pirates versus ninjas. How very original."
"Look! Look at the rainbow! Doesn’t it make you think of vomiting unicorns?…Ed, you’re making the face at me again. Why the face? WHY THE FACE?"
"Have a nice trip! See you next fall!…What? Oh, fine, I’ll go help him up. Still funny!"
Even without the necessary context, all four feel like they’re different people. (For those paying attention and spitting out their drink right now, that’s Envy, Russell, Ling and Ed from 1000 Names because they’re the perfect example of this.) Your sense of humour creeps into everything, and that’s important when creating characters who are easily discernable by speech alone.
We’ve all been victims to it: Procrastination. It gets worse during weekends and long breaks. When deadlines are our own or don’t exist at all, when inspiration has run out, or when our interest is elsewhere, it strikes. As the summer nears an end, I look back on all my precious free time wasted in front of the television or on the internet instead of writing and wonder what I could have done to write more. Everyone has their own excuses for not writing more, so I’ve designed some of these tactics to be customized to you. Do what works best for your specific needs, but write. Just write.
Time. Do you have it? Maybe you’re a single parent working three jobs while you upgrade your degree. Maybe you’re an unemployed dropout living in your parents’ basement whose unfinished manuscript is the one thing keeping you from getting kicked out. I don’t know. Either way, here are your solutions:
- No time. You’re super busy? No problem. Make it portable. Put it on a tablet that fits in your bag or in a notebook so that you can sneak it into classes. Every spare moment on the bus or during class if you’ve finished your work early, take it out and work on it. Trust me, as someone who did most of the first draft to her first novel on the school bus to and from school (and during boring math classes…don’t tell anyone), you’d be surprised how much you can get done between things.
- Average amount of time. Maybe you’re just not very good at putting aside time for writing. That’s okay. Try this: Write for an hour every weekday, two hours weekends and holidays, and an extra fifteen minutes before bed every day. You can adjust it according to your schedule, but when you have stuff to do and time to write, it’s just a matter of recognizing your time to write and taking advantage of it.
- Too much time. Yes, it’s possible. Your life has no structure and you don’t write because all of your time is spent doing nothing. You know you should write, you just don’t. You need structure. You need goals. So make some. Try writing two chapters per day—or whatever you think is reasonable—and spend a minimum of two hours writing per day. Or try writing three hours per day, a minimum of one chapter daily. Race yourself and see how many words you can write in ten minutes, and keep track of your high score so you can aim to beat it. Every ten chapters or whatever you think is reasonable, treat yourself to a movie or something (preferably not a video game or something that will distract you from writing for too long. The exception is books. Books are good).
Motivation. Writing without motivation is like breathing without oxygen. It just doesn’t work. You may be lacking it for a variety of reasons. You’re bored, things are too predictable, you’ve been working on the same thing for so long, and writing has become (*gasp!*) a chore.
- Write on location. Does your story take place in New York? You might not have the resources to go there, but take a little satellite tour of your setting using Google Maps or read books that take place there. Everyone knows books transport you places. But your book takes place in Ancient Greece? Go to a toga party. Take a “Which Greek God/Goddess Are You?” personality quiz. The story takes place in the far off future on a planet you made up? Build a diorama of that place! Make a toothpick sculpture of your protagonist’s home. Immerse yourself in your story’s location. Better yet, go there if you can. Sit on the bench where your protagonist had their first kiss and write. Sometimes, all you need is a change of scenery.
- Simplify it. Our stories can overwhelm us from time to time. Pretend you’re in sixth grade again and do a book report on your own book. I’m serious. Make a poster with the title in block letters smack dab in the middle. Draw out the main characters and glue their pictures on the board next to each of their descriptions. Come up with all the ridiculous English-teacher-symbolism you can get from your writing, whether you meant it to be there or not. Think as a twelve-year-old and list the things about your work the twelve-year-old you would have loved or hated. Map out the plot on a very much simplified plot line to the best of your abilities. All those complications, false climaxes, and flashbacks are suddenly boiled down to beginning, middle, and end. If you want, you can look up book report ideas for elementary school online and do those. I remember doing diorama projects and paper bag book reports in sixth grade. Keep it creative.
- Entice yourself with the tools you use. If you write longhand, choose a notebook with a cover you’ll never get bored of or decorate the cover as if it were the cover of your published work. Use new pens that write in crazy colours or that have feathers coming out the end that make you feel like some fancy-pants writer. Because screw it, you are. Maybe even use a typewriter for the satisfying *ding!* you get at the end on every line. If you use a laptop or computer, get a cool keyboard that looks like it’s made of wood or put some keyboard stickers on. Do something that makes you want to use your tools of the trade more.
- Surround yourself with the right things. If you’re lacking in creativity, a messy desk will help. If you need structure, a neat and organized desk will work better. If you’re writing a scene set in the Sahara Desert and there’s five feet of snow outside, change your computer background to camels and turn on the extra heater while you play with that weird sand-dough stuff that can be found everywhere and is meant for children ages 3 and up. If in your next scene your main character is going on a romantic date, light a scented candle. If you’re writing about vampires, pour yourself a cup of cranberry juice and pretend it’s blood. You can take sips during the messier scenes.
- Get excited. Before you start your next chapter, think about what you look forward to writing in this scene. Are you introducing a new character you really like? Is the drama going to make you cry as you write? Is a planet going to explode? It’s going to be good, and you just can’t wait to get it all written down. If you only listen to one thing from this article that I spent a whole three hours writing, make it this. If you aren’t excited about writing your next scene, your audience won’t be excited about reading it. It will be too forced. It just won’t work. I’ve told you how you can get interested in writing again, you really don’t have to do much more. Just get excited and write.
I hope these tips help you out. When you think about it, time and motivation are all you need for a lot of things, including writing. Now you can go on your merry way and write!
If that didn’t help you, here’s a piece on Writer’s Block: