Rowyn (rowyn) wrote,

A Goofy List of Speech Quirks

One of the things I wrestle with as an author is "giving my characters distinctive speech patterns". I can usually manage to make a few main characters sound unique. But if I have a large cast, everyone starts to sound like me, or like one of a few defaults.

A couple of my beta-readers for Demon's Lure pointed out that Lure had this problem. I would ignore this criticism -- it wasn't every reader -- except that I agree with it (dangit). So I really wanted to fix it, or to be more accurate, I wanted it to be fixed. I actually have zero interest in doing the fixing

Hence, instead of fixing it, I've spent the last three weeks writing Frost.  Which is now at 70,500 words. Yes, I wrote 53,000 words in three weeks. Some authors clean to avoid a deadline. I write a different book. Uh. Go go avoidance habits? \o_

Anyway, today is the first weekday I've had off in a long time where I didn't have to take Lut to a medical appointment, so I celebrated by going to the coffee shop for breakfast. I asked a few friends whether I should work on Frost or Lure, and Lure won. So I am Actually Editing this morning, albeit slowly. 

To help me with this task, I started  building a list of specific speech quirks.  Because I tried Googling for one a while ago and didn't find an existing one that was useful to me.

A few of these are stolen directly from Bard Bloom (or maybe Vicki Bloom; I don't know which of them invented the "Sleeth" one, but I named it for the World Tree species). "Using 'the' for emphasis" is also stolen from Bard. Hopefully they will forgive me. I am sharing the list here, so that future authors can find it and maybe be slightly less frustrated than I am. Also so that I can solicit y'all for further suggestions. c_c


A couple of notes: I write pretty much exclusively secondary-world fantasy. So my books all have the conceit of being "in translation": none of my characters speak English, I'm just writing their dialogue in English because it is what I and my readers speak. So when I say "ESL", what I mean is "in this dialogue, the character is speaking a language that is not their native language." For bonus points, you can show them speaking their native language and take away the 'accent'.  Since all the underlying languages in my stories are fictitious, I can do whatever I like with it. I still try to use language quirks that (a) I can tie back in a sensible way and (b) are not similar to common real-world stereotypes.

If you are writing an actual English-as-a-second-language speaker whose native language is, say, Mandarin or German, I strongly recommend you do research to figure out what kind of missteps they are most likely to make in English and do not just pick one because it sounds cool.  You know that, right? Of course you do.

Unusual tenses: Speaker uses a tense that's a little bit off, like "always uses 'shall' instead of 'will'", or uses past tense instead of past perfect, or never uses imperfect tenses. This kind of quirk can be grammatically correct by careful choice of words; in fact, the whole quirk  may be "they phrase things in an odd way that avoids these tenses".  Tends to give the impression of an ESL speaker.
Improper conjugation: Also an ESL quirk. Character might conjugate all verbs in the third-person, say, or might not conjugate verbs at all. Another option is to try to use declensions on nouns or otherwise do things that aren't done in modern English.  Declensions would suggest the speaker's native language is very similar to the language they're speaking now, close enough that declining nouns feels natural.
Uses names often instead of pronouns: not all of the time, just more often than most people.
Uses nicknames instead of pronouns: again, do sparingly
Nicknames everyone
Endearments: 'she calls me baby/ she calls everybody baby'. 
Terse: short sentences.
Long-winded: run-on sentences
Breathless: insufficient punctuation, or avoids needing punctuation: "we went to the store and then to the bank and after that came home!"
Sleeth: always speaks in the present tense. 
Brevity: Leaves out normal words if they're not needed for clarity: "Went to store" instead of "I went to the store". Or even "Store."
Shatner: pauses mid-sentence for emphasis
Articles for emphasis: speaker uses "the" instead of "a", to call attention to a noun. "He bought the beautiful rug" even though "rug" had not been mentioned earlier.
Avoids possessive pronouns: "he has a thoughtful expression" instead of "his expression was thoughtful".  This kind of phrasing works better than "the expression of him was thoughtful", which is unwieldy.
Favorite word: uses a common word more often normal, or in not-quite-appropriate ways. Modern use of "like" for emphasis, for example. Patrick O'Brien had characters use "which" in this fashion. 'And he asked a third time, which he's not gonna like the answer, you mind me.' A "favorite word" doesn't have to be grammatically correct by normal English rules but whatever meaning or purpose they serve for the character, it should do so consistently. 
Formal: elegant, grammatically-correct sentences. 
No contractions: goes well with formal. Also can be ESL.
Casual: chatty, uses sentence fragments, uses filler words, lots of contractions, colloquialisms. 
Erudite: uses big words. Also goes well with formal.
Plain-spoken: uses small words
Bless your heart: avoids hostile/angry language. Patronizingly kind when annoyed, if not deliberately using kind-sounding phrasing while meaning the opposite.
Negativity: Frames things using negative language, in terms of no/not/un-/in-/won't/don't. Eg, might answer "How are you today?" with "nothing's gone wrong so far" instead of "fine". This doesn't necessarily mean the character is negative or unpleasant. For instance, "no problem" is the negative-language version of "you're welcome." Tends to come across as blunt or a downer, however. 
Positivity: Avoids using negative language. Eg, instead of saying "No" to an invitation, explains that they have a prior commitment.
Rising tone: when uncertain, ends statements with a rising tone (question mark) even if they aren't phrased as questions.
Flat tone: Makes statements out of things that are phrased like questions.
Brusque: leaves out normal courtesies, like hello/please/thank you/you're welcome/goodbye
Alternate courtesies: eg, "you have my thanks" instead of "thank you" or "no problem" or "my pleasure" instead of "you're welcome".
Polite: uses courtesies frequently. Or uses elaborate ones, or to excess. "A great and wide apology, noble sir, from this humble servant."
New colloquialisms: turns of phrase appropriate to the setting/character religion (or dominant religion: characters may swear by a god they don't believe in)
Swears like a: Uses frequent inventive imprecations. Or uses curse words casually/constantly
Code-switching: Changes speech patterns depending on who they are with (most people do this to one degree or another, but it is more or less marked depending one circumstances.)
Respectful: addresses people by title & surname, 
Rude: avoids calling people by name, may not know names. "Hey, you."
Poetic: likes using alliteration and/or rhymes and/or particular rhythms in their speech.
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Tags: writing about writing
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