Friday, October 19, 2018

Giving Our Characters an Authentic Voice


As the holidays approach, I look forward to my family coming from all around for the usual – food, festivities, football, and fighting. Regarding the last thing, we no longer have dramatic battles about important subjects. However, once someone brings up the difference between Midwestern and West Coast dialects, it’s just a matter of time before the Brussels sprouts start flying.

They're all the same, but they say different things
It’s a simple thing: In California, someone would describe the highway they would take by saying, “I’ll take the 405,” whereas someone around Chicago would say, “I’ll take 405.” The difference is one word – “the.” Neither way is better than the other; they are two different ways of saying the exact same thing. Such holiday disputes never truly get resolved – nor should they – but this highlights the importance of those little parts of dialogue that make a character feel genuine.

In fairness, not many people will consciously notice that difference. However, a book about Chicagoans where they “take the 294” will sound off-key to Midwesterners, and Angelenos will feel that “take 405” was bad editing. In this regard, it becomes a distraction. More to the point, it suggests the author was not fully invested in making their characters multi-dimensional.

Local dialects and mannerisms are wide and varied, and most people won’t notice the occasional mistake. However, when you, the writer, examine the way people speak and how they shape certain phrases, you start giving that character more definition. That character stands out on the page, and perhaps it’s because they use the phrase “grocery sack” instead of “grocery bag” (welcome to the southern Midwest.)

Use of the word “soda” versus the word “pop” or “cola” is a prime example, as this great map shows. It’s surprisingly well-defined (and anyone within one-hundred miles of Atlanta calls every dark cola “Coke” due to that area being the main Coca-Cola distribution hub.) Until a few years ago, “sweet tea” was the Deep South version of “iced tea” for the colder climates. Even the predominant sport of a particular region will influence how they talk through their metaphors – baseball euphemisms are not as common in Alabama compared to the football metaphors (Roll Tide!)

This also goes for social groupings as well. For anyone who has been in Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon, etc, there is a particular jargon used among the members. “Share” is used as a noun – when someone talks to the group, that is their “share.” Terms like “ownership” and “choice” have an entirely different weight to them. If someone writes about an AA meeting without knowing this lingo, only AA members will notice the weakness of the story. However, if the author incorporates these terms, AA members will feel it is genuine, and the average reader will feel more invested in this writing due to its detail.

This advice is not just a discussion about how our language is different throughout the great Melting Pot. If you write about someone in Atlanta choosing between sweet tea or a Coke before getting on the highway to go to their AA meeting, this is priceless. Most stories are about something else. There are two important takeaways from this post – pay attention to character detail when it’s required, and when possible, give characters details.

It may sound odd, but when the writer gives characters deliberate little quirks and habits, they pay off in big ways. More importantly, if those little eccentricities stand out because they are against the cultural norm, it provides an opportunity for the character to be defined by that difference. No average, native Chicagoan would ever say, “y’all.” Therefore, if the character does use that word, it gives the writer a chance to explain how it came to be – the character spent two memorable weeks in Baton Rouge or was a lifelong fan of Roy Clark. People will remember that.

And hopefully, someone will remember that when I say, “take 294,” it means I am a lifelong Midwesterner who will always think that “take the 405” just sounds weird. See you this Thanksgiving.

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