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Here we are again, for me, right now, it’s Saturday early morning. The sun has crested the low mountains to the east and we have a crisp blue morning before us. Please, sit down, grab a hot drink, but let’s sit back for a few, relax and talk about stuff.
This was a good week for my personal reading and study in prep for writing. Yes, yes, I can hear your thoughts already and you’re right (you almost always are . . .) I need to reengage the production of actual creative writing. My only cover is to remind you that I still have to earn my living and I spend a lot of time in front of that screen writing stuff – just not the stuff normally that I want to be writing. By the time I’ve done my workday, more time in front of the screen is almost the last thing I want to do. This is my ongoing life-work balance issue. I own it.
This week I came across and article about English Dialects and considered how to use them in my writing. An area I’ve always struggled in was the creation of distinct and memorable characters that my reader would sympathize and connect with and, for some of them, dream about excruciating ways to humiliate and bleed the life out of them.
Okay, that was kinda dark, but you get my point. Good writing most often depends on vivid characters. Some consider it to be something of a cheat to provide the reader with an actual photograph or image of our character and leave that device to those who write for those with very young or limited vocabularies. In general, with literate adults, we try work with words.
Do you recall being wisely coached to not tell your readers about your characters and it’s always better, more engaging, if we show our readers. Consider the difference between these two lines of introduction to, Jerry.
- Jerry was a volatile jerk, often punishing others for his own failings.
- Jerry turned to the child and screamed, “You snotty little snitch! I know you told dad that I stealed that pocket knife! I should use it on you.”
Do you agree that while the first line certainly tells you what you need to know about Jerry, the second, using his own words, almost leaves you with an emotional scar to remember him by?
The first line makes me want to turn around and stay clear of him. The second leaves me hoping that the writer finds a way yank out his fingernails after a sound, prolonged and public waterboarding.
Our fictional characters are much more memorable, if we let them show who they are as they might in real life – by the WORDS they say and the DEEDS they do.
– – = = ( o ) = = – –
This article reminded me of another tool to accomplish this and said a lot about pronunciation distinctions by regions. While this is interesting, it’s almost not helpful in writing.
I’m from California and I have a good friend from just north of Boston and without a huge deliberate effort, he can not help dropping a tailing ‘r’ from words. He has endured me often being willing to share a beer with him but, “what the heck is a be-eah?”
But how do you write things like this without mangling the spelling yourself. How normal words are pronounced by locals is a problem for writers, and sometimes there is no help for it but you must twist the word spelling to gain any value for your reader.
In writing, we can easily put words into our character’s mouths but if pronunciation is important, know that our readers ultimately provide their own mental pronunciations.
I recall well, my first visits to the south eastern United States and sitting down at a cafe to order my breakfast. A very friendly middle aged woman came to take my order with the warm question, “What can I get cha’ darling?.”
She took me totally off guard and my first thought was, ‘do I know this woman from somewhere?’
Of course I didn’t but quickly recovered and rose to meet her cheerfulness with, “Well, aren’t you just the sweetest lil’ thing?”
No – I didn’t really say that. That would have been insulting and very ‘Jerry” of me. She was just being friendly in the dialect of central Florida and not flirting with a total stranger. But do you see how much I’d lose from the line if I’d spelled ‘you’ correctly? As the writer, I had to mangle the spelling to get her dialect (and hopefully, her meaning) across.
My point is that there are all kinds of words and phrases we can use, often with the clarified contexts or non-standard spelling and grammar to communicate who the speaker is on at least two levels, content and region of birth or up-bringing or perhaps their level of education.
As writers we are allowed to have our characters use what is called non-standard and even incorrect English grammar. These words or phrases frequently mangle the rules of English grammar but are common enough to make them distinctive and indicative of some place or group.
These distinctive words and phrases, as a group, have a name.
Such a word or phrase is called a ‘locution‘; pronounced: /lah-que-shan/.
Locutions (a word rarely used in my experience) are often easily recognizable by our readers as ‘something only someone from somewhere would say’, and this is where they become useful to our character development.
I caught an article by Bryan A. Garner* wherein he captured several locutions. Here are some expansions on samples from his list:
- I don’t have no money.
- I have saw her act like that.
- Bring me them books.
- My brother he said I should come along.
- My aunt growed out of acting like that.
- We thought it was too high but he clumb right up.
- I had one taste then she drunk the rest.
- Take this here money and git us something to drink.
- Him and me ain’t old enough to ride.
Do you see the color this can add to your characters? The challenge with technique is staying consistent with how a character mismatches tenses or outright mangles anything that looks like a participle. Speaking like this is not exactly life style for writers. We tend to pay more attention to not doing stuff like this so creating characters who do can be difficult.
Also, if overdone, we can just confuse our readers. It’s regrettable how few of us are guided by the rules of English grammar and instead we mostly speak (and therefore write) as we have heard spoken. Thus, we can easily leave our reader knowing that something is wrong with how a character said something but they’re unsure what was wrong. It just does not sound right in their head. In this case, we would be wise to also create a dialog that clarifies the extra meaning of what the character said.
“It was early but I had to be on stage early so I walked into a nearby cafe where a very friendly middle aged woman came to take my order with the warm question, “What can I get cha’ darling?. She really caught me off guard and I instantly worried if I should know her from some previous class.”
“Ha. You can be such a provincial Californian sometimes. That’s just the way people talk in Florida – except for in the major cities. You didn’t say anything stupid back to her did you?”
But used well, we can more quickly and more vividly paint our character’s character and perhaps her background and association. Let’s test this idea where simple words are both grammatically correct and distinctive. What do you know about the speaker just from her words and what gave her away?
Not knowing what to expect of these people, I was kindly approached by a woman who shyly said, “Welcome sister. Do you have anyone to sit with? You would be welcome to sit with our family.”
So, this speaker is what; kind–most likely, extrovert–unless her conduct is driven by this group, intending to deceive or defraud–not likely.
Perhaps, you already do this but never had a word to describe it. You are now locution literate. If you’ve not used this technique, I suggest you give it a try. This is a very fertile field for character development
I thought it worth sharing and hope it helps progress your own writing.
Thanks to Alli for maintaining this forum for us all these years? We salute you Alli !
Have a great long (for us in the US) weekend all,
* Bryan A. Garner; “Garner the Grammarian”; National Review, May 18, 2020. p. 47.