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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » How to create an authentic-sounding character

   
Author Topic: How to create an authentic-sounding character
mayflower988
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I want to have this man who's kind of gruff and business-like, yet he has a soft spot for my heroine because she reminds him of his daughter. The setting is a historical medieval world. My heroine and this man meet on a road, each traveling alone. I believe I'm going to name the man Angus because I'd like for him to have an Irish brogue. This is where it gets really difficult, though: I'm not sure how to write in an Irish brogue. Any tips?
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MattLeo
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The consensus of most writers is that "eye dialect" (phonetic spelling of non-standard pronunciation) is a bad idea. The arguments against are:
  • It makes the story harder to read.
  • It annoys readers who have to figure out the sounds you're trying to convey.
  • Unless you're a linguist you'll probably get it wrong.
  • You run a high risk of offending someone.
Now I confess to using a tiny bit of eye dialect in my WIP; however that represents a dialect spoken by a non-existent ethnic group, it consists of about a half dozen very simple utterances out of 103K words. But it's a risky and should probably never be used with a major character.

This is a case where you can do a little "tell not show". You simply say "...he said with a slight Celtic lilt ..." --- once, then leave it at that. Believe it or not the readers' imaginzation will fill in whatever they conceive a "Celtic lilt" to be.

The place where you can "show not tell" dialect is in rhythm, word choice, and (with special care!) characteristic but not "incorrect" grammatical constructions. For example a typical Irish-ism is to answer with a sentence rather than yes or no. "Are you coming to dinner?" "I am." rather than "Yes."

Another one is the use of an auxiliary "to be" verb for emphasis: "And that's the truth it is." This also occurs (or occurred) in the rural West Midlands dialect Tolkien sometimes gave his more rustic hobbits ("That was proper 1420, that was!").

But whatever you do, try to get it right. There's nothing that paints you as ignorant poser like, say for instance,writing an African-American character and getting the "habitual be" wrong. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Habitual_be)

The Wikipedia has a good article on Hiberno-English, but the most important thing to do is listen and how read *Irish* authors render Irishmen speaking English. I had a 1930s Irish character so I studied how the speech in Liam O'Flaherty's "The Informer" (set in 1920s Dublin) was represented on the page, and colored my character's speech with a *tiny bit* of that.

If you are going to try to make a character sound like an identifiable Irishman I'd say reading Irish writers writing Irish characters is the way to go. Train your ear to the particular sound of Irish syntax, and then apply it with a light touch. Believe me you do not want to go full monty music hall Irishman. A little goes a long way. A lot makes you sound like a drunk in a bar putting on his phony brogue to tell a "Pat and Mike" joke.

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rcmann
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Sometimes you can make a character distinctive by just habitually changing a word or two. Like, for a rural accent drop the final g in words like comin', sittin', etc. Or maybe have him use a particular turn of phrase that is uniquely his.
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MattLeo
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rcmann's advice is the real Tabasco (as Bertie Wooster would say). Just a few light touches here and there can make a character's dialog "pop".

The protagonist in my WIP has several verbal ticks, the most prominent is her tendency to drop words from sentences, most often articles ("the") and subject nouns ("I"). Instead of saying "I don't have to, I paid my dues," she'd say "Don't have to. Paid my dues." But she doesn't use it all the time; she speaks differently to different people in different situations. It tends to emerge when she's being curt.

I know some people don't like it if a character sounds differently in different situations, but I think that can be revealing and credible. My protagonist for example doesn't skip words when she's really angry; in fact that's when she speaks most most "correctly". It's like she's saying, "I'm saying this very carefully so you can understand you moron." She also speaks in a "correct" register when she's showing humility.

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rcmann
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I prefer that approach. Have one character who grew up in West Virginia, with a thick accent. By the time he finished his MS degree in upstate NY and went to work in Chicago, the accent was pretty much eliminated. Except when he gets highly pissed off. The madder he gets, the thicker his accent becomes.
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mayflower988
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Thanks so much! That was good advice. I like the idea of "showing rather than telling". And it sounds like I'll do better with a "less is more" mentality. I'll try to find some books with Irish characters written by Irish authors.
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extrinsic
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Irish dialects tend to be lyrical, lilting, poetic. Accentual verse is a hallmark of Irish speech. Southern Irish voices tend to be in iambic (unstressed, stressed) and dactyl rhythm (unstressed syllable, two stressed syllables) with stressed spondee ends, creating a querying intonation from declarative context using variant syntax. Rising intonation, in other words. Awkward prounoun referents are an Irish dialectical norm too.

"It is a sad excuse, this youth, for a man, don't you know."

Northern Irish dialects tend to be trochee (stressed, unstressed) rhythm and trobach ends (unstressed, unstressed, unstressed). Abating stress, lowering intonation, trailing off, in other words.

"Night was the time of his undoing, laying low, that is."

Irish urban dialects tend to be more stressed, rural less stressed. All poetic. Reknowned poet Seamus Heaney is a useful Irish poet to read for a sense of Irish speech's poetic rhythm. He's a modern poet, more prose and blank verse than formal verse and rhyme schemes.

Brendan Behan, Irish writer, also wrote a distinctive Irish voice. A Dubliner, his autobiographical novel Borstal Boy is a treasure trove of Irish dialect.

[ June 15, 2012, 10:58 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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mayflower988
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Thanks so much. But what does "spondee" mean?
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MattLeo
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quote:
Brendan Behan, Irish writer, also wrote a distinctive Irish voice.
Brendan Behan is my hero, if only for his dying words. As he lay dying in a Catholic hospital the religious sister nursing him stopped to sponge his brow. "Bless you sister," he said,"may all your sons be bishops!"
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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by mayflower988:
Thanks so much. But what does "spondee" mean?

A disyllable metric foot of two long or unstressed syllables. Unstressed syllable, unstressed syllable. Moth-er, broth-er, love-er, hov-er, for examples. I meant, though, pyrrhus foot: two stressed syllable ends for southern Irish dialects. Sis-ter, mis-ter, back-up, for examples.

[ June 16, 2012, 08:58 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
quote:
Brendan Behan, Irish writer, also wrote a distinctive Irish voice.
Brendan Behan is my hero, if only for his dying words. As he lay dying in a Catholic hospital the religious sister nursing him stopped to sponge his brow. "Bless you sister," he said,"may all your sons be bishops!"
And the reason why they were his last words is because the sister killed him, right? [Smile]
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mayflower988
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KDW: Possibly!
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