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You hear a voice over the phone, a complete stranger. Within moments there are a lot of things you can tell about that person on the other end, even if they tell you nothing outright. You can probably tell gender and what part of the country (or world) they call home. Much of that you get from the sound of the voice though. How much would you be able to tell just from a written transcript of what they say?

That’s what a lot of an author’s choice of dialogue comes down to: conveying a character through the content of their speech, instead of a combination of content and manner. Written accents are possible but tricky; you’re equally likely to annoy the reader with difficult-to-read gibberish or get your accent across. Some of that descriptive tone and accent is best handled in the narrative. How then are we able to distinguish characters by their speech?

While every character has his, her, or its own voice (let’s not discriminate against the animate dead, automatons, forces of nature, and the like), there are certain generalities you can apply to broad swaths of your cast of characters.

My 4 categories:

  • Highborn. Proper speech in every way. Also applies to anyone well educated or making pretensions of such.
    “You have arrived at your conclusion in erroneous fashion. Events could not have befallen as you have described.”
  • Lowborn. Removes long words from the vocabulary, or may misuse them. Frequent use of contractions in speech. Includes occasional slang.
    “Sorry friend, I know you don’t mean nothing by it, but I can’t let you go around talking about me like that, see?”
  • Gutter. Improper grammar and word use. Improper contractions. Frequent use of slang.
    “Aww, gut me. If’n I’d a known he was bringin’ all his lads I’d a run me arse off like there was dogs on me.”
  • Pidgin. Generally used by non-natives speakers of the tongue being spoken. Omits or misuses articles. Simple words used in place of more accurate but obscure ones. Varies by degree based on education or familiarity with the language being spoken.
    “Ah yes. You take. This good horse, most fast horse you buy.”

None of these is a strict guide, but a general rule I use when writing dialogue. Many characters are capable of speaking up or down it a bit depending on the situation (servants speak higher up the list when conversing with Lords; highborn can go in disguise and use lowborn language to fit in, etc.).

Examples in Firehurler:

Kyrus – Speaks perfectly even when endangered or flustered. He is both well-educated and extremely self-conscious.
Juliana – Despite high breeding and an excellent education, she eschews the verbal trappings of her station. She talks like a tavern regular or a soldier.
Tod and Jodoul – Neither of these hapless guardsmen is a fool, but they’re uneducated. Around their superiors both will speak in the “lowborn” mode, but among their peers or between the two of them, they revert to gutter speech.
Stalyart – Stalyart’s is the most interesting example of pidgin speech in the book. It only slips in occasionally when he misuses a word. He’s a great example of why pidgin speech shouldn’t be confused with poor education or stupidity: anyone using it is speaking at least their second language, if not one of many. In fact, Stalyart could be argued to be one of the most intelligent and cunning characters in the story.

How to spot a Twinborn: Accents are unlikely, but odd turns of phrase and speech levels inconsistent with their lot in life are subtle clues.

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