Once Upon A Time...

The Rain In Spain Is In My Ass a Pain

Dialect do's and don'ts
by LJC

Once upon a time, I interviewed a professional Angel tie-in novelist, and we fell to talking about how to write Doyle. For those of you who missed the first season, the character had an Irish accent. And translating the character's "voice" to the page was proving troublesome for the author. His concern was that he didn't want Doyle to come across as "The Lucky Charms Leprechaun." However, going over transcripts of those nine episodes, what struck me was the fact that the lines as scripted were fairly standard American English, peppered only occasionally with distinctive Irish grammar or word choice. What was worrying the author wasn't so much trying to capture the character's dialect as it was the character's accent. It got me to thinking about the pitfalls of trying to translate dialect in fiction.

The first instinct of most writers, when dealing with any accent other than their own, tends to be to try and express that accent using phonetic spelling. However, this stance is more trouble that its worth, as the reader is almost always abruptly jolted out of the fictional world of the story as she or he attempts to figure out what the heck a character is saying, and translating the code into speech.

Fan fiction has an advantage over most fiction in that the audience is already familiar with the characters. We know how they sound. When an Angel fan picks up a story featuring Doyle, she or he is already going to hear the dialogue with his accent. The writer doesn't need to drive her spell-check insane trying to duplicate the accent.

The way to write characters with specific speech patterns is to write the dialect, not the accent. What does this mean? It means paying attention to word choice and the rhythm of the character's speech, because 90% of dialect is word choice. Not the brogue or drawl with which the character says those words.

To continue with the Angel example, Doyle is portrayed on the series as not straight off the boat from the auld sod. Rather, his speech patterns are predominantly American. Story-wise, this could simply be because Doyle has spent a significant amount of time in the United States. Reality-wise, this would be because the Angel writers are all American. However, there are some particularly Irish phrases and sentence structures to bear in mind as you write fan fiction featuring Doyle. For example, rather than saying "Do you have ________?", the Irish will often say instead "Are you having ________?" This comes from a fundamental difference in Irish Gaelic and English grammar that has carried over into how the Irish speak English. Other common substitutions include:

In the above examples, it's all about word choice, and distinctive grammatical structure. Not the accent.

To give another example, each of the characters on Joss Whedon's Firefly have very distinctive voices. Mal and Kaylee use sentence structure, specific words and phrases, and general verbal ticks that immediately identify their dialogue. Like Doyle's Irish-isms, writing Firefly "cowboy speak" is about word choice and speech patterns. Writers should pay particular attention to which words are made into contractions and which phrases and constructions are used repeatedly. While an upper-crust-y character like Simon Tam might say "It was nothing," while Kaylee Frye would drawl "Weren't nothin'" and the reader can tell by what's being said, who's doing the talking.

Certain tricks for getting across a character's speech patterns are generally accepted--such as leaving off the g in words ending in ing, or popular constructions such as gotta, hafta, and 'em for got to, have to, and them. Because these are so prevalent in prose, they have become transparent. The reader glides right over them, never skipping a beat of the story. What can be fatally jarring is trying to duplicate the specific accents--such as how a character pronounces his vowels, or certain consonants, through purposely mis-spelling a word.

Nine times out of ten, writing "I ain't sure, but I'll think on it, and everythin'll look different tomorrow," works better than "Ah ain't sure, but Ah'll think on it, and everything'll look dif'rnt tamorra." From context, the reader will know who the speaker is--and hear the line of dialogue in that character's accent. It also saves the author trying to codify dialogue, and instead she or he can concentrate on capturing the character's voice through word choice--"I'll think on it" for example, rather than "Will think about it," is an important distinction to make--and might make the difference between a line which sounds more like Wash or Simon, than Mal or Kaylee.

Likewise, many times it's about what a character doesn't say, that marks that character's voice as distinctive. Mal Reynolds is more likely to say "Got a job to do" than "I have a job to do." It's a matter of grammar more than pronunciation. Paying attention to what parts of speech are regularly left out of a character's dialogue, and where his or her dialogue differs from standard English, will go a long way toward being able to put new words into that character's mouth. And it often requires taking a few hours to become familiar--through either re-watching tapes, or combing through scripts and transcripts--with how the character speaks in canon, before an author can accurately reproduce that character's "voice" in fan fiction.

When a character is tired, angry, or drunk--how does her or his dialect change? Does it become more lax, or more formal? What factors affect that character's dialect? For example, when telling a story to another character, it is common to slip into the present tense--despite the events having taken place in the past. This is simply a common feature of human speech; reliving an event as one relates it. Choosing to include it can lead to very naturalistic dialogue, despite the fact that shifting verb tenses in prose is grammatically incorrect. Where dialogue is concerned, many grammar rules go out the window simply because how we talk can be very different from how we write. Paying attention to word choice--and what can affect word choice--is a large percentage of writing dialogue.

Having an ear for dialogue is a gift, but it's a gift which can be faked through keen observational skills. But nothing can help an author if the reader cannot understand what's being said due to having to decode the language. When in doubt, keep it simple. Write the full words out, and trust the reader's internal Francis Doyle or Kaylee Frye to pronounce it correctly. It's not only more effective--it'll save you time when it comes time to spell check your opus!

Read the Once Upon a Time archives:

  • Profic vs Fanfic
  • That River in Egypt
  • Tips for writing better fan fiction
  • Enough alphabet soup!
  • A 'zine! A 'zine! My kingdom for a 'zine!
  • When is a Mary Sue not a Mary Sue?
  • My Heart Will Not Go On, Thanks...
  • Canon Fodder
  • If you can't say anything nice... come sit over here by me.
  • Why research doesn't suck
  • Whomp Upside The Head IV: Return Of The Big Stick
  • AUs and You!
  • Mall Rats
  • Reality By Consensus: The difference between canon and fanon
  • The Rain In Spain In My Ass Is a Pain : dialect do's and don'ts