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Dialogue Separated by a Common Language

Picture by Flickr user Ron Mader

George Bernard Shaw once wrote:

England and America are two countries separated by the same language.

But it’s not only England and America – there are numerous English-speaking countries separated by the same language. In fact, there are different parts of English-speaking countries likewise afflicted.

In general, I find the differences in the use of language fascinating. I’m sure by now the internet has taught everyone that the idea of ironing one’s pants has different meanings in the UK and the US. The differences in the way we use everyday words is one of the more interesting aspects of talking with people from around the world.

When it comes to writing fiction, however, these differences take on a much greater importance than mild amusement over using the phrase “fanny pack” in the wrong setting.

Know Your Character

As an Australian, it’s incredibly frustrating to read a book where an Australian character is reduced to a caricature of himself by the over-use, and incorrect use, of slang. I’ve come across Australian characters who seem to have eaten a Dictionary of Australian Slang for breakfast, and then vomited it all over the page.

Not every real-life Australian speaks like Crocodile Dundee or Steve Irwin. In fact, most Australians – particularly those who live in cities – regard them with a certain degree of cultural cringe.

While I arrange to meet a friend for a late brekky in the early arvo, before popping in to the servo and the bottle-o on the way home, I’m not going to call her “cobber” in the process, and nor am I going to exclaim “Crikey!” at the first provocation.

If you’re writing an Australian character, you need to know how Australians speak. You need to understand the way Australians use slang, and the differences between Australian and American everyday conversation.

The same obviously goes for writing a character from any other country. I have it on good authority that not every Canadian begins a conversation by asking about the hockey, and most people from Ireland don’t say, “Top o’ the morning” to everyone they pass.

This goes beyond not using dialect, and straight to the heart of knowing your character – knowing how she speaks and thinks.

But… how?

The question, of course, is how do you do that? How do you learn how to write a character authentically if they come from a different part of the world to you?

It’s not impossible. In fact, I’ve seen it done incredibly well. But there is some extra work required.

  • Get to know people from the country in question. Talk to them. Not about your novel, but about life. Pay attention to the way they phrase sentences, and the way they structure their thoughts, as well as to the specific words they use.
  • Or use YouTube. One of the advantages to the wave of YouTube bloggers is that you can find YouTubers from just about every country on Earth, talking about everyday things. Watch videos made by people from your character’s country – inane unboxing videos, or vlogs about their lives are best if you want to pick up everyday language.
  • Reach out to the Writer Unboxed community. One of the great things about WU is that we have a community full of people from all over the world. You may find someone who is willing to read over what you’ve written, and help you get the dialogue just right.

In the end, it’s not that different to researching the language used in Historical Fiction. Much as a 16th century noblewoman isn’t going to talk about how “lit” last night’s ball was, an Australian isn’t going to complain about AT&T – or even the coverage on their cellphone. (We may, however, complain about the reception on our mobile.)

Know Your Audience

It’s important to note, however, that unless your narrator is from a different country than yourself, I’m solely referring here to dialogue. And even then, you have to find the balance between using authentic slang and making the dialogue understandable for your audience.

I was recently helping a friend out with some dialogue in his latest novel, and we had to draw the line at using the slang phrase: “Yeah, nah.” While that’s a phrase I use quite often, it’s something that may be jarring for his predominantly American audience.

It’s Not Just Countries…

Of course, the same applies for smaller regional areas as well.

If I was to have a character say, “Why don’t y’all come inside for some sweet tea?”, it would likely feel a little jarring if I want on to explain that she’s from Detroit.

Even as an outsider, I know that there are regional variations in the way Americans speak – and that, as a writer, it’s important for me to know where in the USA my characters come from.

The same is true of other countries as well. Someone raised in Brisbane will use language significantly differently to someone raised in Melbourne. And I’m positive that the same is true of people from Montreal and Vancouver.

Do Your Research

At the end of the day, regardless of whether you’re writing a novel set in 17th century Britain or modern-day British Columbia, it’s important to get your dialogue right.

Don’t  turn your characters into caricatures.

How do you go about making sure your characters speak authentically? Have you ever come across cringe-worthy dialogue from a character who is supposed to live in your region of the world?

 

 

About Jo Eberhardt

Jo Eberhardt is a writer of speculative fiction, mother to two adorable boys, and lover of words and stories. She lives in rural Queensland, Australia, and spends her non-writing time worrying that the neighbor’s cows will one day succeed in sneaking into her yard and eating everything in her veggie garden.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.