by Ashley Lister
Last month I mentioned that characters can be built through four elements: appearance, speech, action and thought. As we looked at appearance last month, I figured this month would be a suitable time to consider speech.
The basic rules to writing speech in fiction can be summed up in one word: clarity. So long as your reader understands what your character is saying, you’re doing it right. And one of the most frustrating ways of messing with clarity comes when readers give their characters regional accents.
The following examples comes from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
‘What are ye for?’ he shouted. ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld. Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him.’
‘Is there nobody inside to open the door?’ I hallooed, responsively.
‘There’s nobbut t’ missis; and shoo’ll not oppen ’t an ye mak’ yer flaysome dins till neeght.’
‘Why? Cannot you tell her whom I am, eh, Joseph?’
The first and third line of dialogue belong to the broad Yorkshire character Joseph. Those who are familiar with Wuthering Heights will probably be familiar with the intrusion of Joseph’s dialogue in this otherwise entertaining tale.
Perhaps I’m biased here. I grew up in Yorkshire and Brontë’s representation of Joseph’s accent strikes me as being a long way from what I encountered from friends and family. But, more importantly, I find this to be a distracting piece of text. Instead of concentrating on Joseph’s message, I’m trying to work out how to pronounce ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld.’ This is a novel and I’m supposed to be engaged with the story and the characters. I shouldn’t be trying to work out how to say words.
Elmore Leonard in his 10 Rules of Writing says, “Use regional dialect and patois sparingly” and it’s a rule I would fully support. Dialogue is intrusive and, regardless of how much fun the author things the reader will have in decoding a phonetic transcript, the truth is most of don’t want that added nuisance.
If it’s important to your character to have some regional flavour in their speech, allow them to use the vocabulary of an area rather than the dialect. For example, in the extract above, Brontë could have written, “The maister’s down in the fold.” We’ve got that single word ‘maister’ which suggests a Yorkshire accent, but is sufficiently close to ‘master’ so we’re not puzzled by the content. And we know that Joseph isn’t going to simply utter one word in this dialect and then articulate the remainder of his speech in BBC English. To my mind, this is a more effective way of conveying regional difference without interrupting the reader’s suspension of disbelief and their immersion in the narrative.
This is not to say that no one should ever write characters with a regional accent. I’ve just come back from a writing conference where a very clever lecturer explained that no writing rule is an absolute and there will always be scope for subverting rules under some circumstances.
I agree with what he said and I believe, if you’re writing a piece and it’s essential that your character says, ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld. Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him,’ then you should follow your authorial instinct and produce the story in that distinctive fashion. However, if your beta-readers and your editor say that some parts were a little confusing, or dragged them out of the story, I don’t think it will take long to work out where the problem is.
I’ll talk more about creating characters through speech next month but for now, as always, if you want to share any of your dialogue in the comments box below, I’m always happy to read and respond.