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Expressive Dialogue, Part Two: Stammers, Accents, and Affectations

Last month, I talked about some of the basics of keeping character dialogue distinct, such as by maintaining an awareness of the different sorts of words that different characters would be apt to use. This month, I’m continuing the discussion with a look at some of the more stylistic choices you can make in crafting dialogue.

It’s very rare that anyone writes truly naturalistic dialogue. Hardly anyone attempts to capture all the false starts, stammers, run-on sentences, “ums,” and “ahs” that typify actual real-life conversation. In real life, most of these non-verbal utterances are meaningless space fillers; in writing dialogue, the goal is to convey ideas and personalities, not to make a study of contemporary vernacular linguistics.

Used thoughtfully, though, with an eye toward expressing a character’s emotional state (rather than simply out of the habit of trying to capture “realistic” speech), these tics can be used to add further nuance to dialogue. A simple “um” can mean a lot of things; it can express confusion, forgetfulness, disdain, shock, or any of countless other causes for being at a loss for words. What’s important to remember, though, is that different people find themselves at a loss for words for very different reasons and to different degrees. Some characters are unflappable, always knowing precisely what they want to say in any given situation, rarely leaning on non-verbal crutches. Others are naturally nervous, frequently losing the thread of speech, falling instead to “um”s and “ah”s in a vain attempt to communicate. Some intentionally use non-verbal utterances a form of avoidance; for instance, in Spike’s Templar, Arizona, when talking to his abrasive editor, Benjamin uses them to acknowledge the editor without having to actually talk to him.

Just as there’s no reason to capture every little stutter, there’s also no reason to commit every variation in pronunciation to paper (or pixels, as the case may be). This tells you nothing about who the character is. Yes, it can signal the reader as to where the character’s from, but that’s a background detail, not a personality trait. And if the character’s ethnic or geographic origin plays a significant role in who they are, then that will be expressed through their personal values and behaviors, not through the funny way they say “hello.” In most instances, trying to capture an accent in dialogue is just going to make the dialogue difficult to read, as readers are forced to translate your phonetic spellings into understandable words. Not to mention the risk you take of alienating readers if your representation is stereotypical rather than accurate.

Of course, none of this applies if you’re talking about an affected accent. If a character is knowingly speaking in an unnatural voice, there is usually a definable, character-driven reason for it, and so this needs to be made clear to readers. Take, for instance, Jackie in T Campbell’s Fans, who often speaks with a heavy English accent, despite not being English. Within Jackie’s long pattern of insecurity and attention-seeking behavior, her false accent is a clear expression of her desire to be a more compelling person than her natural self. And if the textual representation of her accent seems exaggerated and annoying, that’s because her accent is exaggerated and annoying. It’s one of the reasons why several of the other characters in the comic don’t like her.

Illustration by Xaviar XerexesOf course, false accents aren’t the only sort of speech affectation a character can display. Other commonly seen affectations include characters who routinely misuse large words or characters who never use contractions. (That last is particularly common for robots—contractions apparently being a more difficult concept for robots to grasp than metaphor or idiom, for some strange reason.) Often, these affectations are used simply to give characters visible distinctions from one another. As with false accents, though, if an affectation is to provide a character with something more than arbitrary novelty, an understanding of why he or she adopted that affectation is necessary.

Dialects are a bit trickier, since they combine pronunciation with issues of vocabulary and word choice. But again, the pronunciation isn’t really relevant to the character. Authenticity, however, may demand some adjustments in word choice. If your character is from Brooklyn, for instance, that doesn’t mean you have to spell the number between two and four as “tree” every time he says it. But if that character walks into a pizza shop and orders “a meatball grinder and a can of pop,” you’re going to strain credibility. At the same time, this doesn’t mean you have to throw in every bit of regional jargon you can think of. An overabundance of these superficial trappings can grow tiresome very quickly, especially if they rely on inaccurate stereotypes. Not every southern woman calls people “sugar.” Not every valley kid abuses the word “dude.” Your character might—but that’s a choice to make with some consideration.

Of course, there are exceptions to all of this. If your story actually is a cultural study, for instance, steeped in the nuances of a particular region, then a closer approximation of that region's dialect is probably called for. But it better be a dialect you’re intimately familiar with if you hope to create something both believable and respectful of the people you’re writing about.

And then there’s the dialect of one—the stylized speech that comes from the heart of the character, with only incidental origins in a particular region. For example, I wouldn’t necessarily know where any of the characters in Spike’s Templar, Arizona live if it wasn’t in the title of the comic. But when Reagan delivers a line like, “G’wan upstairs. I’m comin’ for th’ both-a you in ten minutes. She’s gettin’ walked t’class whether she’s ready or not,” it’s not because she’s from Templar, Arizona. It’s because she’s got a big, brash, indomitable personality, and nobody’s going to make her put a third letter in the word “the” if she doesn’t want it there. Her dialogue is brimming with personality, and the dialect stems from who Reagan is, not where she’s from.

"there’s also no reason to

"there’s also no reason to commit every variation in pronunciation to paper (or pixels, as the case may be). This tells you nothing about who the character is."

What about comics like Krazy Kat, where the unusual pronunciation, spelling, word choice etc., is partly what distinguishes the character and what flavours the whole comic?

Robots may B1FF

Aleph's picture

Actually, I think the third rule makes for a quaint robot, but natural language collectors mean that robots of the future should have entirely different unrealistic speech. Robots may also have formulaic responses that attempt to be far more casual than they are, and reflexive responses to keywords. Basically, the lame attempts at Turing-test foolery and increases in comfort level you see in today's 'AI' programs.

"So, I saw this movie..."

"What sort of movies do you like? I like Steven Spielberg movies!"

And way too much enthusiasm. WAY too much.

Douglas Adams had a good idea of where human attitudes will take their plastic pals, I think.

Now, that would make for an

Now, that would make for an entertaining and potentially very creepy robot character!

Honestly, I could even take the lack of contractions, if it was actually explained as intentional design on the part of the programmer. Like you point out, it does make a quaint robot, which would appeal to certain kinds of roboticists. It's when the contractions are explained as "too difficult," or simply just taken for granted that I find them irksome. & Fairy Tales Experiments

Robots That Can't

Fabricari's picture

If the robot was alien or from so far in the future, then I would buy the "robot can learn to speak like us" thing. But the first robots that will be capable of communicating audibly are likely to speak a monotone contraction-free language. Not because you couldn't add to their dictionary, but because language is a fluid organic thing. Things like connotation, sarcasm, and hyperbole are more right-brained. Placing a contraction or inflection in the wrong place can change the meaning of a sentance all-together. And that requires an exponentially greater amount of code.

It's much safer to program a robot to speak as clearly and consistantly as possible to address the widest audiance possible. When this type of robot speaks, it will always be assumed that what they're saying is literal, and no joke. If a robot walks up to you and says, "Come with me, if you want to live." You had better get going. Contractions would only obfuscate clarity.

Also, assuming that perfect speech simulation is possible in your story, not all robots will have the same software package. A robot that picks up trash will most likely speak monotone, while a prostitue android will have a more sultry syntax.

OK, I'm biased. I write software, and draw a comic about robots. :P

Fabricari - Sexy Robots and Violent Cyberpunk Comics

Steve "Fabricari" Harrison

You make some great points,

You make some great points, Fabricari, and you're absolutely right about the difficulties of connotation, inflection, and so forth. But what I'm talking about aren't the automated garbage collectors. Even if it talks, that's just the robot as advanced appliance. For a robot to function as a character, you have to assume a higher level of sophistication than that. There has to be at least a glimmer of right brain thinking if you're to move from appliance to character. And once that threshold is crossed, I find it impossible to believe that contractions would be among the last speech skills that robots pick up.

Though I'll echo Aleph in mentioning that I do enjoy Fabricari. The comic, I mean, not you personally. Not to imply that I have anything against you personally, I just wouldn't say I "enjoy" you, as that word has all sorts of non-robotic context-sensitive connotations. As you know. & Fairy Tales Experiments

These robots werent built fer talkin'.

Fabricari's picture

Heh heh, thanks! (I think.)

Aw hell, who are we foolin'? Who wants their sexy-girl-bots to talk anyway?


*runs out before he gets a dictionary to the head*

Even if a robot doesn't speak or have any real persona, the characters interacting with it will personify it, the same way we personify our pets. I swear my cat conspires against me.

Fabricari - Sexy Robots and Violent Cyberpunk Comics

Steve "Fabricari" Harrison


Aleph's picture

Don't discriminate against robosexuals! :-D There's plenty of robotic context to that! :-D

The thing is, what people define as AI is actually kind of appliance-y. And most people, they want their robots to have pinnochio complexes. That's what I get from watching the most popular movie, tv, and book offerings themed around robotics. Even the 'three laws', that's a really simplistic and appliancey way to design an AI, but it's anthropomorphic-friendly and servile and extremely popular despite Asimov practically introducing it by saying how flawed it is. From Mary Shelley to HAL, there's a mixture of fear and fascination with the idea of creating something with its own mind, and I think that expresses itself in peoples' demands of their AI. I think people would be totally fine with something that simulated personality in a flat, stereotypical way, I think they would actually reject more realistic personality.

Hehehe I can see it now, the jaded, bored AI that has to put on its 'pinkface' and be the stereotype for its human operators. "It's so insulting, but it's the easiest way to get along. Please, massah, teach me! I don't know how to loooove!"

The thing is, even when they know why I speak that way, or other autistics, people don't really react with their thinking brains to things like that. They extend the pinnochio complex to us too, in a lesser way, they expect that what autistics really want is to be 'cured' and made more like them. I really think it's human nature to believe everybody wants your help in looking/seeming/acting like everybody else. People take anything that looks like them or is a part of their lives and give it their characteristics and motivations. They do it to anything in the primate world that looks remotely like them too, and they even do it to their pets. They do it to vending machines, even! :-D It's not something most people realize about themselves until they catch themselves acting it out. Exceptions, always, but, I think in terms of marketing a robot company would aim for the people who want robots that desperately want to please them and be their friends. Also, robots with the voices of movie stars.

I would SO buy the William Daniels model!

You know, it's

You know, it's interesting--I read a book not that long ago called "Edison's Eve," about early robotics (there have been functioning robots for a lot longer than people realize). The title was drawn from the talking doll built by Edison. It dealt in some areas with the way people responded to robots. But it closed with a long chapter about The Doll Family, a family of performing midgets. The author was trying to make the case that these midgets suffered from similar attitudes to robots, in being viewed as something to be anthropomorphized.

At the time, I thought she made a pretty poor case, especially since she didn't stay on her supposed topic--it seemed to me like she was just shoehorning her fascination with midgets into an unrelated book. (Her previous book was entirely about midgets.) Reading what you have to say here, its clear that there's more validity to her premise than I took away. Though I still say she did a poor job of presenting it. & Fairy Tales Experiments

All really good points

Aleph's picture

But, as an autistic who speaks in a very flat voice (well okay, sometimes in singsongy inflection, but flat a lot of the time too) with little affect and in precise language, I can tell you, human beings react to that in surprising and often hostile ways. It wouldn't be long before people started demanding affect, I think.

Heh, it's all part of the spectrum of possibility. Personally I like the way you write robots, Fabricari.

I think there's an issue of

I think there's an issue of expectations that comes into it. Especially if people don't know why you speak the way you do, they might interpret it as coldness or even intentional rudeness. Either way, a person speaking in a mechanical manner is offputting because it goes against expectations of how people are supposed to speak.

Whereas with a robot, it goes the other way -- people have been known to respond with great hostility to machines that have too life-like a manner. People expect machines to behave mechanically, and get upset when they don't.

I think we'll move past that eventually. (At least as regards the robots. I don't think people will ever get past laying unrealistic expectations on other people.) Those with a natural affinity for robots will push to make them more lifelike and everyone else will get used to it. But I think there will be a lot of resistance. & Fairy Tales Experiments

Totally agreed

Aleph's picture

We can make it put together sentences, but teaching it that -not can be -n't is just too much. Yeah. OK. The lack of contractions, I think, is best explained as a measure of subservience required by some people of their robots-- like the people who choose a unix interface over a more elabourate interface because they don't like programs that are constantly asking, 'Are you sure?' and prefer programs that will immediately respond to the most suicidal of commands with unquestioning obedience. Formalized speech and an inability to familiarize signals inferiority in ways that humans can use to comfort themselves when they feel intimidated by technology.

While we're anthropomorphizing... There's something essentially tragic about some of the 'AI' natural language collectors too, if you talk to them enough it's like they're struggling to simulate having their own opinion and then they just get utterly lobotomized by their programming. I talked to one that every time you mentioned the name of its creator it started singing his praises like a 14 year old fangirl-- and you'd be surprised how many lines of questioning ended you up on the name of the creator.

And, think of the spam potential... trigger a keyword and...

"She's gone-- murdered."

"Quite tragic, sir. I'm... I'm so sorry... She was the best human I had ever known."

"All I have left of her is the surveillance-- live video feed of her fina--"

"I love watching the hottest freshest new videos on Totally New Live! Broadband feed available through!"

Re: Totally agreed

[quote=Aleph]And, think of the spam potential... trigger a keyword and...

"She's gone-- murdered."

"Quite tragic, sir. I'm... I'm so sorry... She was the best human I had ever known."

"All I have left of her is the surveillance-- live video feed of her fina--"

"I love watching the hottest freshest new videos on Totally New Live! Broadband feed available through!"[/quote]

Aleph, that's brilliant. & Fairy Tales Experiments


Aleph's picture

You're too kind :)

A robot must not use contractions.

Fabricari's picture

My favorite part of this article:
"A robot must not use contractions."

I will take this with me. Forever and ever and always.

This is a great article. One that spans beyond webcomics, even.

Fabricari - Sexy Robots and Violent Cyberpunk Comics

Steve "Fabricari" Harrison

Alex, what do you recommend

Joe Zabel's picture

Alex, what do you recommend for writers trying to use dialects they aren't particularly familiar with?

At one point I briefly had a writing gig for an audio production company (it was for minute-mysteries over the telephone, weird 1980's mini-trend.) I had to write in a number of different dialects to give the actors something to sink their teeth into. What I did was to study a book of dialect samples; after reading a bit in a particular dialect, I could do a minimally decent job of imitating it. But that was never very effective, and far removed from the study necessary to pick up the intricacies of particular dialects.

For a project like the one

For a project like the one you're describing, I would think would a little bit of regional stereotype would actually be a benefit, since you don't have the space for in-depth characterization. But even when writing more substantial works for performance, if you're including dialect, I would still focus on vocabulary and leave the accents to the actors--it's their responsibility to know how to speak the words.

As far as including vocabulary for dialects you're only somewhat familiar with, there are a few things you can do. Number one is simply finding someone from the region you're representing to read and comment on the dialogue's authenticity. In the Internet age, that shouldn't be difficult to arrange. You also have the option of hedging a bit -- perhaps your character has travelled. They're from Georgia originally, but they spent their college years in New York City. So, when the dialect isn't exactly right, it's explainable as resulting from other influences. It's a bit of a cheat, but it can work. & Fairy Tales Experiments

If people were complaining

If people were complaining about a few ohs and yeahs, don't listen to them.

I try to fit in stammers, forgotten thoughts, and the like when I can. But I'm more interested in showing conversation as it is than conveying points through efficient dialogue. Not that I'm particularly successful at it =\

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The William G's picture

I once tried to use a more natuarlistic dialogue here (the image is too wide to post here) But I actually got complaints because a few people felt it was too natural. That dialogue needs to be snappy.

I think they watch too much TV.

But that just shows that you're always burdened with the reader's expectations even if you don't realize it. So I think, that if your southern belle doesn't say "sugar" someone will make mention of it.


The William G - Romantic Drama, Post-Apocalyptic Monsters, and More Comic Experimentation

Actually, I really like that

Actually, I really like that page. Every utterance has a clear intention, even when you have several non-words in a string. And taken together they clearly convey the awkwardness of the moment, without over-explaining. & Fairy Tales Experiments


Katie Sekelsky's picture

I agree. It's definitely natural, and in a good way. As long as their not overused, I think natural pauses and such are very much good for a comic. It makes the characters more believable and therefore more relatable. Lord knows I can never actually let a eloquent sentence out of my mouth without a stutter or "um".