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  1. ohr_drakonis

    ohr_drakonis Member

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    Does every character need to have their own unique syntax and way of speaking?

    Discussion in 'Dialogue Development' started by ohr_drakonis, Feb 28, 2022.

    This is a real challenge for me, to give every character their own unique style of speach.
     
  2. Lili.A.Pemberton

    Lili.A.Pemberton Active Member

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    I mean, I wouldn't say they'd need to have a completely unique way of speaking, but your readers being able to differentiate between your characters' way of speaking could only help, in my opinion.
     
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  3. JLT

    JLT Contributor Contributor

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    But you have to have a good ear for different dialects, keep them separate, and keep the characters true to their particular idiom. And take to heart Mark Twain's comment on the different dialects in Huckleberry Finn:

     
  4. evild4ve

    evild4ve Senior Member

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    Yes, I think so. Each real person in the world has a unique voice, which we can learn to recognize from a few sentences of their writing - but a character in a fictional story is only a voice. Characters don't really do the things they do, but they do really say the things they say.

    But this mustn't be artificial and rely overmuch on verbal gimmicks. The main things are the ways characters organise their thoughts, the words they choose, and the position they adopt from which to relate to the reader. Dialect is then on top of all these things - it must be as authentic as possible but it's not what makes the character.

    The OP's other post made brief mention of Tolkien..! Tolkien was a linguist, and yet he puts Bree over 1000 miles from Osgiliath without making Boromir's accent almost totally incomprehensible to the hobbits as it would be in any real world-of-languages. This is creative license, glossed over by the Common Speech and Tolkien's role as 'translator'. Whilst having the technical know-how to differentiate all the characters' dialects, he only gestures to it (e.g. by selecting a few mannerisms and phrases from different parts of England to help the reader situate them). "Less is more" I don't think was a sentiment Tolkien treasured highly, it's surely that he knew dialect confusion in a novel should be less than in everyday life, not more than. We don't want every other word to be "wot?" and "huh?" and "ey?" as starts to happen to us if we travel more than thirty miles in any direction.
     
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  5. Terbus

    Terbus Member

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    Yes, but it's simpler then you think. Characters will develop their voices without to much work on your part. Small casts tend to create their speech patterns and points of view on their own. With large casts, you might want to choose a few specific things for each character and work off of that. It helps if you have a general idea of what you want them to sound like.

    Genre and time period play a big role in how characters sound as well. If your writing anything that doesn't take place within the last five years, I'd suggest researching different saying and such used in the time you are writing in. This will give a story a real touch that the reader can appreciate.

    The best advice I can give you is not to try to hard. It will happen on its own.
     
  6. Mogador

    Mogador Senior Member

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    One character is blunt and terse, the other is vague.
    A third always finds a way to leven the mood, a forth usually drags it down.
    Those kinds of character traits will come with their own rhythms and syntax.
     
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  7. Joe_Hall

    Joe_Hall I drink Scotch and I write things

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    For me it comes in with worldbuilding...usually I give regional dialects or speech patterns to distinguish them from other people groups. If it is a main supporting character I always try and give them personality in through their voice.
    For example in my current world I have a demi-giant named Lars Helgason who grew up in the north and speaks a language I borrowed from proto-Germanic. When he speaks imperial it sounds guttural and broken to them and he tends to use hyperbole and similes. Something like : "If you touch dat baby I vill crush yor 'ed like un rottin punkin!" (Writing his lines give's my word processor a nervous break down :D)
     
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  8. JLT

    JLT Contributor Contributor

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    That's true. But even before air travel, Australians could communicate with Englishmen and Americans, although enormous distances separated them. And one of the benefits of Latin was that Catholics could communicate with each other although they were far apart (and sometimes separated by an ocean). It is true that Latin eventually morphed into separate dialects and, finally, languages, but the Latin language was mostly preserved.

    And Boromir and Faramir would have been educated in Minas Tirith, which was a hub of civilization and it would have been expected that they become proficient in the Common Speech.

    Another thing to consider is Tolkien's use of class distinctions. Sam Gamgee has a working class accent, but Aragorn's speech is that of a royal. The orcs are thugs (although why Peter Jackson saw fit to give them cheesy American-gangster speech is beyond me), while the elves speak in formal tones.

    Thomas Berger uses the same trick in his characters in Little Big Man, where the narrator uses a formal form of English when translating Cheyenne speech, but a much rougher speech for the white soldiers and frontiersmen. And much of Custer's speech comes directly from his actual writing.
     
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  9. evild4ve

    evild4ve Senior Member

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    Sorry when I posted that I wondered if I should have made more of the timescales and your post has shown that yes I should have. Westron's roots were in Numenor so between Tolkien's years Second Age 32 - 3319. The LotR story starts in the Third Age 3001, which (if my maths is right) is about 3 millennia later. Australian English is only ~250 years old! And Latin survived relatively unchanged only within a small elite but in common speech it became Spanish, Italian, Portuguese (etc), inside a much shorter timescale than the Third Age. My qualifications aren't as a Tolkienist though so apologies if somewhere he did set a date or rough period to Common Speech's being standardized - I bet he didn't, and I bet he was conscious of the lack of linguistic 'drift' being a concession he would need to make to his readers. I take your point too about Boromir and Faramir, but in real world dialogue education is massively short of true bilingualism and usually still leaves enough of a dialect-gap for there to be "whats and pardons", which I'm saying authors don't need to burden readers with. My wife for example had an emergency caesarean on Monday, and the Indian surgeon was better educated than Boromir, and more skilled with a blade (!), and perfectly fluent, and all he was saying was which way she should lean for the epidural to go in, but one of the nurses nevertheless started to interpret for her - as she was clearly used to doing.

    Wouldn't it have been nice if Tolkien could have done - at least - a short story using the hardcore approach of... Mel Gibson! (in Apocalypto or The Passion of the Christ). "This is what the characters said - and if the audience won't be able to understand a word of it that's not my fault!"

    I have strong views on class and dialect - in a respectful departure from Noam Chomsky, I believe that language is innate, our dialect is genetic and an ethnic characteristic, and that our brains are amazingly malleable and can adapt even to the point of thinking in another language instead of the one that our inherited brain structure expects. Dyslexia is unusually common in English-speakers, and I put that down to it being an Imperial language - that was forcibly imposed on the Heptarchy, and later the British Empire. Sam Gamgee on my view is working class because he's Dorset or Bristol - an oppressed Saxon from ancient Wessex - whereas Aragorn is more of a received-pronunciation Norman. My favourite orcs (so far) are the ones in the Shadows of Mordor game. Being ("dirty", "thieving") Cockneys they sound just like one of my family gatherings. Which of course I can't have anymore, because we've been scattered all over the place by the ruling minority and forced to work long hours for rented houses. But we're better off than most, and have had 1000 years to get used to English. My privileges let me find comfort in how Cockney orcs preserve my natural dialect, rather than being offended by them and needing to challenge it - but it's a reminder that I should disagree with dialect being used (only or primarily) to code social class. If we open the door to that, it's capable of being extremely offensive in other ways in the process, whilst also being very under-the-radar. But going back to the OP, I'd urge them to use dialects they like and think the reader will enjoy - as fantasy writers we don't have to put people into the same boxes that our diction puts us in real life. I like to write characters speaking MLE - because that's a real "common speech," it's somewhat adjacent (experientially+technically) to my own dialect, it's an exciting area of the English language living and evolving, and being still under-used in literature it can describe settings in unique ways. It's worth doing the research to nail a dialect - that's something Tolkien teaches all writers.
     
    Last edited: Mar 5, 2022
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  10. Bakkerbaard

    Bakkerbaard Senior Member

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    I'm also doing a TV show that really doesn't need to happen at this moment, so I only glossed over the replies. Might be that I'm just parroting something already said in a better way.

    I looked into syntax and language a while back, when I was too busy with finding out how to write instead of writing. Yeah, a character should be recognizable from the way they say something, but if you apply a little bit of method acting when nobody is looking, this will happen organically. Know your characters. You don't need an extensive backstory, but their speech patterns and word use can be determined from their background. Where do they live, what's their education.
    I had a Nigerian character in a story that never finished, who learned English purely from books. It made sense to me she'd never use contractions.

    The bigger problem is close friends. I have one of those, and separate from each other we have different ways of speaking. I don't give a lot of shits, and he needs to pretend to be a grown-up. But if you were to write a dialogue between us, we'll speak in the same... uncouth manner, and textually you couldn't tell us apart.
     
  11. Kalisto

    Kalisto Senior Member

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    Yes and no. Every character should have a unique "voice" but that doesn't necessarily mean you have to pound your head against the wall looking for unique syntex. I personally don't have that kind of time.

    As the saying goes, "Our words reveal our thoughts." So the first step should be establishing what each of the character is hoping to get out of the situation. In other words, their motives. What's important to each character. A character who is depressed might serve as the comic relief throughout the story in an attempt to keep the world from feeling as he does. The strong, confident man, might actually only be that way because he wants to hide his insecurities.

    One mistake the writers make is that they never establish these deep, inner thoughts of their characters and so every character ends up being the same.
     
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  12. GeoffFromBykerGrove

    GeoffFromBykerGrove Active Member

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    I was watching a Mark Kermode review of Death Proof on YouTube this week. He said (roughly speaking) “everyone in a Quentin Tarantino movie speaks like Quentin Tarantino, except for Quentin Tarantino because she’s such an awful actor that he can’t even speak like himself”.

    An entirely unique and distinct voice isn’t necessary for every single person, but considering how you can reflect differences in characters would be handy. The rest could be done with dialogue tags, I’d imagine. I say this as a reader rather than a writer. I don’t need to be able to read a sentence in isolation and be able to know exactly who is speaking. But sometimes characters really warrant it.
     
  13. hmnut

    hmnut Member

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    I agree with what others have said, even if the reasoning is just economy of time it is not worth it to give every single character their own style of speech. But realistically in real life most people speak the same as other people around them. The style of speech Barbie from the Valley and Billy Bob from Bayou will be different, but Barbie from the Valley and Tiffany from the Valley will probably have very similar speech.

    You shouldn't try to "make each characters speech unique," you should try to make each character unique and speech could be one way you express that.

    Let me put it another away. No one bangs their head against the wall trying to come up with a different hair style for each and every character, but you might use hair style to indicate something about a particular character.

    Too many different "styles" of speech would probably be jarring to the reader. What you might want to go for is each character having a distinctive voice, but that has more to do with characterization. An introvert or shy character may only respond with one or two word answers. A more excited or hothead character might speak in more excited burst, maybe out of nowhere. A straight lace character might always cut right to the point, while a more creative/artsy might always use colorful metaphors.

    And also, don't try to make EVER SINGLE LINE OF DIALOGUE fit these characteristics. The character who uses metaphors likely doesn't speak exclusively in metaphors (unless he's a fairytale character or something). Sprinkle these traits in to show character when appropriate.

    My 2 cents.
     
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  14. Lew

    Lew Contributor Contributor

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    I wrote a very successful piece of historical fiction, The Eagle and the Dragon, set 2000 years ago that had many, many characters: high and lower class Romans, Greeks and Greek speakers, Arabs, Chinese, Parthians, Xiongnu (Mongolian ancestors), and Central Asian Bactrians. The Arabs, when speaking Aramaic, were captured with a King James version of English. Some seldom if every used profanity, the soldier, the lower class Latin speaker, swore extensively, though I limited this to the lesser offensive words, and just often enough to make it part of his character. I tried to give each one an individual voice. This went over very well with many reviews commenting very favorably on the characters. Though the book was very long at 240,000 words, many reviews called it face paced, so the different voices didn't get in the way.

    The book was successful enough that I invested in an audio version. My British narrator spoke both Latin and Chinese, and accentuated the individual voices so well that you could easily identify them just by their speech. The Bactrian caravaneers, for example, spoke with a South Asian English accent, like their Indian/Afghan/Pakistani descendants. That has been as successful as the Kindle and paper versions.

    So this can be successful. My wife has written three books set in southwestern Virginian Appalachia. I advised her to make them speak like my cousin Dawn from Western NC, and she researched quite a few expressions pretty much unique to the area and time. The third book had a character from that area in the Royal Army as a doctor with the 51st Highland Division in WWII, and she accurately captured those dialect. In the editing process, she had my British son-in-law, a friend from SW Virginia, and our Scottish writing friend @jannert and husband for accuracy. These also have been successful.

    The trick is to imagine, as you are writing the dialogue, to imagine how this person would sound saying it. For example, the upper class Romans seldom used contractions or profanity, and never made a grammar error, and I imagined them sounding like an upper class Brit. The centurion I imagined as a 119th century British soldier from Rudyard Kipling, lots of contractions, slurs, elisions and grammatic errors: "Beggin' yer pardon, sir, but yer like ter git yersel' kilt doin' that."

    So @ohr_drakonis , go for it. You can make it work.
     
  15. JLT

    JLT Contributor Contributor

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    But not necessarily identical, since Barbie's parents were from Appalachia and Tiffany's were from Minnesota, and the girls would undoubtedly use a vocabulary and syntax that reflect their parents' origins. Of course, peer pressure might have gone a lot way to obliterate these distinctions, but that process isn't perfect.

    One of the confounding things an American writer faces is the constant movement of people from one part of the country to another, and the influences that move had on their accents and speech patterns. A dear friend of mine was raised in rural western Virginia, and came to Baltimore with the classic Appalachian accent. Fifty years later, her accent is pretty much indistinguishable from that of a person born and bred in Baltimore. And her son has been living in southern California for over twenty years, so God knows what he sounds like now.

    But that can be a liberating influence for writers, too. Unless their characters were raised in isolated communities where everybody spoke the same, we can make our characters talk as differently as we please, in order to differentiate them from the crowd. We can leave it to the reader to puzzle out just where those characters might have picked up their idiosyncratic speech patterns.
     
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  16. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    I think there is some danger in letting dialog do too much of the heavy lifting in character development. I think it can be fun to play around with dialog to the point we as writers get caught up and drag out conversations in both what is being said and how it is being said. I used to write a lot of dialog. I thought I was good at it, and maybe I was. But I started to rely on it too much to the point it was holding back the story. I know there are some great works that are heavy on the dialog, but I've found there are much better ways for me to build a story than letting the characters take over by talking through it. Now, I'm pretty sparse with dialog, and because of that I believe who says what and how it's said has more weight. But I'm not looking to create a unique way of talking for each character. I don't think I need to, and in many ways it could be a distraction if the writer is trying to hard to make everyone sound distinctly different.
     
  17. Joe_Hall

    Joe_Hall I drink Scotch and I write things

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    You can make each character unique through descriptive prose without relying on dialog. I like a good combination of the two--when you go to one extreme or the other I always feel my writing gets out of balance...
     
  18. newjerseyrunner

    newjerseyrunner Contributor Contributor

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    I don’t think so. Characters with similar background will use the same slang and accents.
     
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  19. JLT

    JLT Contributor Contributor

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    True. Which is why you have to give those characters enough of a distinct personality to discern them. Two people raised in the same environment may choose to have different vocabularies... one may be more judgmental than the other, one may be more religious, and so on.

    Yeah, that makes the work harder for us as writers, but that's why we get paid the big bucks.
     
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  20. Lazaares

    Lazaares Contributor Contributor

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    The purpose of unique voice / mannerism is to create unique characters that are memorable and not just carbon copies of one another. If you can achieve that through something else than voice, then sure, you can concentrate on something else. Personality is the biggest thing, two characters might have a similar voice but they'll act and sound different if their personalities are polar opposites.
     
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  21. frigocc

    frigocc Contributor Contributor

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    It's not necessary, but really helps with characterization, and, as others have said, making your characters memorable. Also makes writing dialogue way easier, since you better understand their rhythm, intonation, accent, etc.
     
  22. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    If every character is given a unique way of phrasing things and speech patterns, I feel like it could do more harm than good. It sounds like it could muddy the story and distract from what's being said. I can understand a character or two, but all of them? To me, that seems a little excessive and could do more harm than good.
     
  23. frigocc

    frigocc Contributor Contributor

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    I mean, it doesn't have to be to an extreme extent, like Groot or something. But take the other Guardians of the Galaxy, for example. If there's some dudebro piece of dialogue, you immediately know it's Quill. Sarcastic and witty? Rocket. Serious and terse? Gamora. Odd grammar and obscure word choice? Draxx. All of these characters are believable, and their dialogue sounds natural. But we wouldn't even have to be told who was speaking to know which one was. And if we were going to, say, write a fan-fic about it, it'd be fairly easily to deduce the dialogue based upon the situations they're put in.

    Unique voices help a ton.
     
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  24. Mr Grayshaven

    Mr Grayshaven New Member

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    I'd say it depends on the setting and the environment that the characters are in. Take 10 random people from parts of the United Kingdom and they'll have different accents, dialects and ways of talking to each other, which in turn can affect their personality and relationships.

    I think different mannerisms are a fantastic way to help differentiate between your characters, as others have said. It doesn't need to be extreme, just enough that your reader could say "oh that sounds like something ____ would say."
     
  25. JLT

    JLT Contributor Contributor

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    And the writer really has to get those accents and idioms right. Otherwise, some reader is bound to complain.

    Refer to my quote of Mark Twain of last February. Twain was a good enough writer to be able to pull off all those accents and dialects because he had an amazingly sharp ear for such things.

    By contrast, Ian Fleming was always painful to read. His descriptions of places and meals and such were memorable, but every time he attempted to depict American speech patterns, he resorted to so many of the stereotypical ones ("Sho nuff" for African Americans, "Youse guys are dirty rats" for gangster types, and so on) that it derailed the progress of the plot for me. I can't say whether he took similar "liberties" with South African English or Australian English.
     

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