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December 11, 2019

Voicing a character

A colleague who also reads and comments on books written by one of my authors has asked about my approach to editing when the character speaks poorly.

In general, dialogue helps define characters. We'd hardly believe Huck Finn were he to start speaking like Prince Charles. The current president has a way of speaking that clearly marks him. People with little education may not know or care what their English sounds like, as long as they are communicating.

However painful it may be to listen to poor English, it must be represented on the page as it would be coming out of the mouth of the character. That honesty is owed to them.

'Ah saw him comin' up the road, an' I ain't never seen no one look so pitiful.'
'Dammit! Ah cain't believe he went an' done that to me!'
'She was sick as a dog an' still wouldn't lay down nowhere.'
'Uncle Luke said he was going to the pahk, and then he'd bring home some chowdah."

Whether it's simply bad grammar, or limited vocabulary, or a regional accent, there is no way those sentences could be changed to be correct without erasing history, the character's past and personality. Speech paints a portrait of the speaker. It is not the place of the editor to be making changes in characters, to try to force them to be what they are not.

In the books we are reading for DK, I have, over time, tried to nudge Hayley and Kaitlyn into the correct use of lie and lay. They each have college degrees, and seem to have grown up in and around middle-class to upper-middle-class
people who are educated. It is likely they have been taught, but may still forget. In that case I see no problem in making a note to our author. In the end, though, the author will always make the final call.

I also take into account situations, emotions, and overall 'voice' of a scene. Would this character really say X to this person at this time and place? Is the character expressing true rage, or trying to control his anger? Have we seen them this emotional before? How is this time different? Does the speech work and seem natural with the actions they are performing?

In the end, I have to decide whether something is reasonable. And if I deem it un-, then it's time to

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