“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you—trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines…use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and as I may say, the whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.” — Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2
I studied a lot of drama in college, and later used what I had learned in several community theater productions. I’m lucky to live in a good ‘theatre’ town, with several non-profit companies that cover everything from Euripides to musicals to original works. Although the acting bug stopped biting me awhile ago, I loved nearly every moment of rehearsal and performance, not least because I had the chance to appear in some wonderful productions.
Plays differ from movies in a lot of ways, but one of the biggest contrasts is, as one of my favorite directors used to say, “Movies move, plays talk.” Film, based on photography, depends on images to tell a story. Theater, defined by the presence of actors and audience in the same space at the same time, depends on dialogue.
While I write books, not plays, and have an array of writing devices to use in story-telling, I still love good verbal interplay between characters. Whether as a writer or a reader, I demand a lot of a character’s speech (and since narrative can go inside someone’s head, their thoughts).
A character’s vocabulary and grammar can inform the reader of his or her background, social or educational level, and relationship with other people in the room in the space of a few words. Our speech is influenced by our gender, our mood at the moment, and our basic natures. So is a believable fictional character’s.
One of my favorite series is the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt mysteries by Anne Perry. Thomas, although the son of a gamekeeper, speaks like a member of the upper class. This works because Perry explains that as a boy, he was permitted to share lessons with the son of his father’s employer. That’s only one example. A cowboy from Texas won’t have the same accent or slang as a Boston-raised lawyer, even if they both went to Harvard.
Suppose a character alters her accent to fit into her current workplace or social circle. She may still use expressions she learned in childhood, like Eliza Doolittle at tea with Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady — or my old acting professor. Bill is a New Orleans native who needed to tame his accent in order to increase the range of roles he could get. It always cracked us up when he would say, with perfect standard pronunciation, “I am fixing to go down to the store. Do you all want something?”
One of the biggest aspects of a character’s speech and thought is gender. Men aren’t as verbal as woman, and unless it’s in an area they are trained to observe, they often don’t notice details. A hero who identifies the designer and exact color of the heroine’s dress is not going to come off as realistic. Yes, some heterosexual men can identify colors like puce or burnt sienna, if they’re artists like my stepmother’s brother. But most men will say “purple” or “brown”, like my hubby.
Male or female, a believable character will mirror real life in how they address others. We don’t speak to our supervisors the same way we do our toddlers (tempting as that may be on occasion). Depending on the time and place, it can be inappropriate for a man to swear at, or in the presence of, ladies — and ladies might be prohibited from using anything stronger than ‘lud’ or ‘darn’. Of course, even a proper gentleman and lady involved in certain intimate activities might use crude language with their partners, to their mutual enjoyment. Context and motivation are key reasons behind a writer’s word choice.
Do you have any favorite conversations between characters in your books? I’d love to hear about them.
And as an extra bonus, I’ll send out a wee little prize related to Her Scottish Groom to the first person who identifies the actors pictured at the top if this post, along with their best-known science fiction roles. Hint: the photo is from a British production of Hamlet.