What speech patterns mean

First things first! This past week, I’ve been working the bugs out of Render’s paperback edition. It turns out there were some technical difficulties on my end (e.g. my poor little Macbook Air struggling to display a huge OpenOffice file) that threw my formatting out of whack. The print-on-demand version of Render available now has had these problems addressed, and all known typos corrected. I also managed to trim down the physical size, which — happily — allowed me to lower the paperback price to $13 USD. This lower price is available now through the Createspace store, and it should be reflected on Amazon in the next day or three.

Now then! Let me tell you about an issue I looked at while actually writing that book: characters’ speech patterns.


Sometimes, book reviewers will complain that a novel’s characters all “sound the same”. Meaning that multiple characters in a story have the same general pattern to their speech and use the same set of slang and idioms — regardless of their personality or background. In really severe cases, elderly farmers and urban teenagers might speak the very same way. That just doesn’t make any sense. It makes the characters blur together and it can even make the story outright confusing, if it’s too difficult to determine which character is speaking any given line. Even if a book’s characters are all from the same small town, they should put words together differently because, well. People are different.

And besides, these speech pattern differences can show a lot about how a person relates to their culture. In this culture, for example, women are unconsciously taught to be agreeable by phrasing things as questions, not commands. “Could you send me that report?” instead of, “Send me that report.” It’s an outdated idea but it persists, probably because it’s so engrained and commonplace that neither men nor women consciously notice it very often. I sometimes catch myself asking questions when I actually intend to direct someone confidently — and boy, am I annoyed with myself. And I see the same downfall in my fellow restaurant workers. Hosts often find that directing a customer to sit at a certain table is like herding cats. I noticed that the hosts who have the most trouble seating customers in a specific place? Are the younger female hosts, who say, “Is this table alright?” rather than, “Here is your table.” Phrasing does matter.

So if I were writing a story about a modern-day-ish woman from Canada/the United States, I’d pay close attention to how often her dialogue ends in a question mark. That particular pattern might reveal a lot about her. If she’s confident in commanding people, why is that? Because she’s a self-aware feminist? Because she works in a male-dominated career field and has picked up the speech pattern, a pattern she uses like a tool in everyday interaction? Maybe she’s just a very bluntly honest person who doesn’t care about seeming polite and agreeable? There are many ways her dialogue can shed light on her character — and as a bonus, she’ll seem distinct from the female characters who are always asking polite questions.

That’s just one angle. The way a person puts words together can reveal their past, their thoughts, their insecurities and much more. That’s the deeper layer, and then there are the more decorative elements — like that one character who exclaims “Great Scott!” when surprised instead of a more generic, “Oh my god!”

The Aligare world has a different cultural landscape than Canada in 2013, but I pay the same amount of attention whenever quotation marks show up in one of my books. I try to give everyone a particular feel to their phrasing, and make sure their speech really reflects who they are. In Render, Rue almost never uses “well” as verbal filler. “Well” is a mild, passive word and Rue is usually more decisive than that. She says “now” instead — so she says, “now, let’s see” to give a sense of immediacy that “well, let’s see” really wouldn’t convey. Everyone has their basic patterns and particular tics, which need to be used in the right amounts. People are quirky and they don’t even follow their own patterns 100% of the time. Syril of Reyardine speaks in long, rambling sentences, but he is capable of answering in four words or less.

So ultimately, editing a novel’s dialogue involves a lot of fussing over every word. I’m sure even non-writers know that. But if a character’s dialogue is distinctive and it fits who they are, it’s easy to forget that you’re reading about a fictional creation. The character becomes simply an interesting person you want to hear more from. Just like a random person you might meet at a party and find delightful. Like so many aspects of writing, good dialogue can be a lot of work — but done right, it comes off like the most natural thing in the world.

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