Dialogue: Letting Your Characters Speak a Distinctive Dialect

Heinlein MoonRecently, I finished reading the classic science fiction novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein.  As science fiction novels go, this one offered an action-packed story of revolution to achieve independence and freedom, with two interesting areas for ideas: artificial intelligence and settlement of the Moon.  Heinlein did a good job of exploring both.  However, I’m not a huge fan of Heinlein’s writing.  Even reminding myself that he was writing during a time before the women’s liberation movement gained momentum and attention, I don’t like his social attitudes reflected in his writing style.

Having said all that, what really surprised me about this novel was how successful Heinlein was in telling the story from one of the character’s points of view, that of Manuel, a computer programmer and technician.  The reader remains inside his head from the very first sentence to the last, and that includes the dialect or patois Heinlein developed for this society reflected in Manuel’s thoughts and speech, as well as the speech of other characters.

What a bold move.  How annoying.

Reproducing a distinctive dialect or speaking accent when a character speaks is interesting the first time he opens his mouth.  That sets up how the character talks, gives him immediately a place of origin and perhaps even a back-story.  The next time the character speaks, that dialect needs only to be hinted at in some way by word order, dropping words or word endings.  It doesn’t need to be the full-blown dialect treatment again.  Why?  Even if a writer is talented at writing dialect, she risks alienating her readers by making her writing hard to read.  Dialect can obscure meaning, and the writer needs to be clear.  Dialect can slow down a reader, even annoy him.  In other words, it’s not a particularly good idea to do for very long in a story or novel.

Heinlein’s lunar patois seems to be a blending of Russian and English,Heinlein photo with a little Spanish, and additional phrases that I believe came only from Heinlein.  I have some experience with the Russian and Spanish languages.  I found his choice of using them as language sources interesting.  Since this book was written mid-1960’s, long before cell phones, smartphones and text messaging, Heinlein doesn’t use word abbreviations or numbers for words (thank you!).  That doesn’t make this lunar patois any less annoying.  For example, the title of Book One is “That Dinkum Thinkum.”  Right away, I’m not sure I want to continue reading.

I confess, when the lunar patois in Manny’s mind or in the dialogue got to be too much, i.e. totally annoying, I stopped reading.  I put the book away for days at a time until I felt the need to find out how the story ends — the only reason I kept reading.  The main computer’s artificial intelligence intrigued me, especially its benign character (aren’t we usually dealing with evil machines?), and lunar society was full of surprises.  Heinlein thought of how living one’s entire life on a planet with one-sixth the gravity of earth would affect the human body, and what would happen if that person chose to visit earth.

It could be argued that Heinlein’s choice of writing completely in the lunar patois was true to the character of Manuel and immersed the reader immediately into Manny’s world and life.  I think that’s true.  But there were times when I had no idea, and no clue, what he was saying or thinking because of his dialect.  I admire the book for its intriguing ideas, Heinlein’s vision of how the moon could be settled, and for the story of a revolution.  I don’t admire his choice of writing the entire book in the lunar dialect he created.

When writing dialogue, please think about what the dialogue needs to do: sound natural (even though it really isn’t), reveal character and/or move the story forward.  Is that difficult?  You bet!  But it’s worth the struggle for your readers to write the best and clearest you can…..


4 responses to “Dialogue: Letting Your Characters Speak a Distinctive Dialect

  1. Pingback: BLOGGERS ANNONYMOUS | hastywords

  2. I completely agree. I have found a great way for developing my character’s speech is by transcribing phone interviews I do for a paper I write for, and reading them as I listen to the recording. It is really attuning me to the speach patterns that people have.

    • Wow, that IS a terrific way to get the speech patterns in your ear. I shamelessly eavesdrop in public places like city buses and bus stops, walking down the street behind people on cell phones, while in waiting rooms. Thanks for the comment!

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