Abaddon Books

Dan Abnett and Nik Vincent on creating speech

5 years ago

There are lots of reasons for creating speech patterns for characters. Sometimes it’s simply to differentiate one from another. It might be to imbue someone with a particular trait, say of annoyance or dizziness or of being an intellectual. Speech patterns maketh the man or woman in some instances.

Inventing a dialect for an entire community or race is something else, but can be key to the reader’s understanding, or can, at the very least help it.

Writers often invent dialects when more than one community appears in a novel, or, in SF or Fantasy, more than one race: dwarves and orcs speak differently from one another, as do humans from elves.

Sometimes only one race inhabits a book, but in that instance it is too easy for the reader to automatically read that race as human. Give it a dialect and the problem is solved. Invest that dialect with nuance and describing the race is also a problem solved. They describe themselves in the language they use.

There are any number of ways to do this.

We begin by limiting or expanding vocabulary, by choosing particular words, which might, for example, be arcane and not in common use. We might make up words or use compound words. We might also choose specific forms of words not usually used. for example, we would usually refer to a ‘speaker’, but for the purposes of a particular dialect we might choose to use ‘sayer’ instead.

We might choose never to abbreviate or use contractions for words like ‘not’ or ‘have’, so ‘wouldn’t’ becomes ‘would not’ and ‘could’ve’ becomes ‘could have’. We might go further still and never use negatives of any sort.

We might decide that a race has no words for things we take for granted so, for example, if something cannot be literally touched there might be no word for it, so ‘air’, ‘sky’, ‘breath’, ‘steam’ etc might be out.

There’s a great deal that can be achieved with tenses. Primitive races might use only two or three tenses. There is a lost language where the speakers referred to the future as being behind them and the past ahead of them. That would be an interesting way to write a race, and, now that I think of it, something that I’m not sure has ever been done in a novel. It’s an interesting philosophy, too, and instantly tells the reader something about that race.

A primitive culture in a novel might use only limited pronouns. They might never specify gender, for example.

It’s all about making choices.

Having made those choices, it’s about being consistent.

That’s the real trick, and that’s the difficulty, particularly when we’re narrowing the vocabulary and the tenses. If we limit ourselves it becomes harder to say all the things we want our characters to say, and it becomes tougher to differentiate between one character and another.

In those instances it’s useful if there’s a rhythm to the direct speech and forms of repetition. It’s important that the reader catch a refrain, becomes familiar with what is likely to come next.

Everything in writing has to be transparent to the reader. Nothing must seem difficult to understand on the page.

That of course, is where a good editor can be a huge help, making sure that the language is consistent, that nothing jars, that where tenses are limited there is no deviation. That there is music in the language of speech, because that’s what it is, after all... It is speech.

People, in the real World don’t speak in sentences. They don’t speak formally. They repeat themselves and hesitate and make a lot of unnecessary sounds that have little to do with words, and that’s not always possible in the written word.

Patterns and rhythm and shared words and phrases are possible, and those are the things that families and communities share. So, those are the things we try to use when we’re building a dialect.

Then the language that the races in the novel use must sit comfortably within the language of the book itself. While the voices of the characters of the races must be distinct there must be some echo of them in the text, some sense of their rhythm in the rhythm of the prose and in the story as a whole, otherwise the novel ceases to be about those characters.

It can be a bit of a balancing act and there’s a fine line to tread. And sometimes it’s possible to produce a book that is deceptively simple and linear from quite a complex set of experimental rules.

We hope we’ve achieved something a little like that with the Aux in the novel Fiefdom.