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Know Your Character’s Language

February 10, 2017 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified February 10, 2017

Today’s topic comes courtesy of a book I recently read. The author is well known, the publisher a long-established publishing house, and yet still there are distracting miscalculations in word choice in the book. The words aren’t necessarily wrong, but some don’t fit one of the characters.

If most of your characters are from one country or region but another character is from a different country or region, be alert to how the speech of that one character might be different from that of the other characters. So if most of your characters are British and live in London but the odd man out is American and lives in Houston—or most of your characters are Americans living in Chicago and the odd woman out is Australian and comes from Melbourne—you need to be aware that the one character won’t always use the same words and phrases that the other characters do.

Most of us are aware that there are different Englishes used around the world. I’m not talking about accent but word choice—dialect. English speakers in the U. K.  don’t necessarily use the same words or phrases as do English speakers in Canada, the U. S., Australia, New Zealand, India, the Philippines, and so forth (there are also different regional dialects within countries). Many English words are common around the world, but not all are. And if you’re not familiar with the differences, you might put the wrong words into a character’s mouth.

On the other hand, you may try too hard and change what is common across multiple countries; many, many of the words are the same no matter where in the world they’re spoken. I believe that one of the odd word choices that I read in this book was an example of the author overthinking the matter, imagining that the words should be different, even though they wouldn’t be.

My suggestion for writers (and editors) is to be alert for language differences when one character is from a different English-speaking country than most other characters and to be especially alert when that one character is from a country other than the writer’s own. You may want to have a beta reader from the same country read your manuscript to search for words and phrases that don’t sound quite right.

Of course, there are differences within countries as well, so what might fit a character from one part of Australia might not fit a character from another territory or city. And that’s definitely something to also be aware of. Yet you might not be in a position to check regional differences as easily as you can national differences. Also, not every individual from a region would use what we recognize as an obvious regional word or phrase. For example, not everyone in the American South says y’all. Not all those in the Bronx say youse.

My point is that you will want to edit and rewrite with an awareness of possible national or regional language differences.

 

Examples 

I made note of a few word choices used in the book I referred to at the beginning of this article. The author and lead character are both British, but the major secondary character is American. It’s the American’s word choices that weren’t always accurate. Let’s consider a few of those choices.

“. . . only to discover that the target has got rid of the evidence . . .”

British English (BrE) may not use has or had gotten often, but American English (AmE) certainly does. And AmE typically doesn’t use has got rid of. Options to change this to a more common American English usage—

“. . . only to discover that the target has gotten rid of the evidence . . .”

“. . . only to discover that the target had gotten rid of the evidence . . .”

“. . . only to discover that the target got rid of the evidence . . .”

——–

“He was killed last December in an auto wreck on I-95 . . .”

While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with auto wreck, it’s not nearly as common in AmE as any of the following:

crash

accident

wreck

car crash

car accident

auto accident (this one would be much less common than the others)

Since the highway is named, anyone hearing this conversation would understand that the speaker was talking about a car accident rather than any other kind of accident, so car wouldn’t need to be mentioned and probably wouldn’t be. But car would likely be more common than auto (although insurance commercials do use auto accident often, probably to differentiate it from other kinds of accidents).

I think that this is one instance where the author might have gone overboard with the wording, trying to make it different from that of BrE, since I don’t believe that auto wreck is too common in BrE either. (If it is common in some locales, I hope you’ll let me know.)

The point with this one isn’t that you’d never hear auto wreck, because you might. It’s just that it’s not common and there are quite a few more common options.

——–

“Mondays and Tuesdays are usually dark at the major tracks, unless they’re public holidays.”

If holiday is modified in the U. S.—although it wouldn’t need to be since holiday alone is sufficient—it’s often called a national or federal (or even a state) holiday. Holidays aren’t often called public holidays in casual conversation.

——–

“But what if NYRA do a search?”

BrE treats collective nouns as singular or plural, so the team are and the team is are both acceptable constructions. In AmE, however, collective nouns are almost always presented as singular. The exception is when the speaker or writer is emphasizing the individuals of the group rather than the group itself.

Acronyms aren’t collective nouns, yet they’re treated the same way. So in AmE we’d find NASA is preparing a new space shuttle rather than NASA are preparing a new space shuttle. The same would be true for BMW—BMW is hoping for a record year—and NYRA (the New York Racing Association)—NYRA takes cheating very seriously.

For our example, the more likely AmE wording would be—

“But what if NYRA does a search?”

________________________

In terms of the story as a whole, there were very few words or phrases that jumped out at me. But these and a few others did.

It’s not that you might not find any of these words or phrases spoken by an American in real life, but they are unusual enough that they stood out as I read, stood out as not being the natural wording of a contemporary American.

I also don’t mean to imply that readers wouldn’t understand different words or phrases used in place of what is familiar to them; we easily learn new words simply from their use and their connection to other words. I myself learned quite early that when the topic was cars, boot was BrE for AmE trunk and bonnet was BrE for AmE hood. Yet if you can keep from jarring the reader, keep from disrupting the fictional bubble that surrounds a reader while she reads, that’s what you want to aim for.

If we can keep readers inside the fiction, more aware of events on the page than of the mechanics required to get those events to the page, that’s a good thing. Paying attention to word choice even in this one small area may help you hold your readers tight to the fictional world, oblivious of your presence behind the story.

Keep in mind that not everyone will agree that such word choices don’t fit; any one of you might know a real person who would use these and similar words. But you do want to be aware of how many of your readers might be stopped by a seemingly incongruous word choice.

Do what you can to write your characters’ speech and thoughts in ways that fit them. But if you need to run that speech and those thoughts by someone more familiar with the particulars of the language, do so. Don’t leave such an important detail to chance.

edit well #2 83797AA0F48D684CBAC54FBF163B9699

 

 

Note: While I used English as a base for my observations, other languages also feature different dialects and word choices. No matter what language you write in, make sure that your characters speak and think in words that they would actually use.

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7 Responses to “Know Your Character’s Language”

  1. Peter says:

    Right on, Beth! I’m a Canuck, and even I would never use “auto wreck”. I’d only use “wreck” as a verb (I wrecked my knee!) or to describe an unfit individual. On a similar note, I was struggling for some time about how much non-standard English is too much in my novel (I have two uneducated street characters), until I read Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”! Every character speaks that way … all through the book! I did actually find that a bit much, but now I know that the relatively small amount I have in my book is just fine! Thanks for another great post!

  2. A. Marie says:

    Great advice! Shared with my writing group!

  3. Phil Huston says:

    Yeah, find a native speaker from wherever, locally or online. Care is advised or you’ll end up with this…

    “…I can give you some money to get us a little help if you’d like.” He offered her a fifty dollar bill.

    She waved it off, “I’ve a video on being American. Your money’s no good in this town, cowchip. Hit the blackboy with your nose…Noise! Blackboard? Blacktop!”

    “How old was that video?”

    “It was bit of cinema, actually. I thought…Well, it was all John Wayne and everything, what we saw.”

    You want to start over?”

    “Take a pow wow, pardner. Hit the…Dusty cow pie?”

    “Tell you what. When you get to America, have that down, or forget it. Your cab driver won’t know, but anyone else? You might not make it to your hotel room.”

  4. Barb Bittel says:

    A very well known (and one of my favorite authors) kept pulling me out of a novel because of misusing words. The story involved British, German, Russian, and American families. As an example, he wrote a California teenager using the word “maths” to describe one of his school classes. I know it seems trivial, but I couldn’t let go of it, and I had to wonder what other words/phrases he misused in German and Russian. It seemed to me that the author was too arrogant to bother about differences in dialect and usage, and that spoiled the reality of the novel for me.

  5. James hope says:

    Awesome article over language characters , i agreed with language dialects ,how people read and write or speak totally depend on their MTI (mother tongue influence ),but people learn carefully for words pronunciations and writing command.