Elaine Orr on How Characters Talk

Today, I have Elaine Orr writing about how the different ways characters talk affects how the story is told. This is her second visit here. Read her post from last May here.

Photo of Elaine Orr, who is writing about How Characters Talk
Elaine Orr

No matter what our characters say, we make decisions about such things as their tone, dialect, and pace of speech. For example, in my Jersey shore mystery series (the Jolie Gentil series) I chose not to give most of the characters the stereotypical Jersey accent. Two (an annoying real estate agent and a policeman) will say the occasional youse, to keep some area flavor.

Dialect choices are obvious ones. Vocabulary can be more of a challenge for me. Like most authors, mine is a fairly good one. But word choice should be very different for the high school-age grocery clerk and the local pastor. Words need to reflect the character’s persona. It’s fine for a surprised, older Midwesterner to say, “Lands sakes,” but a college coach would probably say, “What the hell?”

Reader expectations also have something to do with word choice. My Logland series, set in a small, rural Illinois college town, is billed as a police procedural with a cozy feel. If it were a true cozy mystery, characters couldn’t swear. (Not that they really let loose.)

Of my three mystery series, I have the most verbal fun with the characters in the Logland series. In this scene in Tip a Hat to Murder, Police Chief Elizabeth is talking to two of the Bully Pulpit Diner’s food servers about the murder of their boss, Ben. Ben recently raised prices , saying he would pay staff more and customers didn’t need to leave tips.

“So, like the TV show cops ask,” Elizabeth continued, “did Ben have any known enemies?”

They both shook their heads, and Nick spoke. “We were all trying to find new jobs.”

“Jobs with tips,” Marti said. “We got a lot of tips.”

Nick frowned, “Umm.”

Nick’s pause made Elizabeth think he might have thought better about what he wanted to say. “What, Nick?”

Nick glanced at Marti. “What about Gordon Beals?”

Elizabeth arched her eyebrows. “The insurance actuary?”

Marti nodded. “He was mad at Ben, because he added crackers to the hamburger.”

“Crackers?”

“He wasn’t supposed to have any gluten,” Marti said.

“Not even a cookie,” Nick threw in.

“Did Mr. Beals threaten Ben?”

They spoke together. “No.”

“Unless,” Marti added, “you count him saying gluten gave him bad gas and he wasn’t going to step outside anymore.”

“To fart,” Nick added. “They are pretty lethal.”

“Okay.” Elizabeth studied her note pad, not sure whether to laugh or beat her head against the table. “Other than fart threats, do you think anyone was mad enough at Ben to hurt him?”

The chief and Marti are well spoken. Nick’s irreverent attitude comes through.

Then the chief talks to a group of business owners as they get together for coffee. She starts with a question.

“See anyone holler at Ben when they left, or anything out of the ordinary?”

“His chili was extra-crappy yesterday,” Squeaky said, “but if he was gonna be killed for that it woulda happened a long time ago.”

“The man’s dead!” Nancy trilled.

“I didn’t mean no disrespect,” Squeaky said. He folded his hand across his ample belly and let them rest on his bright orange golf shirt.

Elizabeth smiled. “I know.” She pulled out her notebook. “It was always pretty bad.”

That seemed to relax them. Gene spoke from where he’d been leaning against a door jamb. “He did seem kinda stressed the last few days.”

“Why do you say that?” Elizabeth downed a sip of coffee and wished she’d added a lot of sugar.

Squeaky leaned forward and rested his arms on the table. “See, when Ben was hopped up, he talked faster. Moved around a lot.”

“Paced?” Elizabeth asked.

Nancy shook her head. “Jiggled change in his pocket. Just moved real quick. Like if he got up to get coffee here it took maybe five seconds and he’d be back at the table.”

“He was like that a lot since he stopped letting customers tip.” Gene gazed at the others, one by one. “Right?

“Pretty much,” Nancy said. “I mean, we liked it, but his waiters gave him a ration almost every day. You go there since?”

“I saw the picketers,” Elizabeth said. “Didn’t want a story about the police chief crossing a picket line. One of the guys picked up sandwiches for me a couple times.”

“Isn’t that kind of chicken for a police chief?” Gene asked.

Elizabeth grinned broadly. “I pick my battles.

You can tell the business owners are comfortable with the chief. And it’s clear that one of them (Squeaky) has a more earthy vocabulary than the others. Though he doesn’t think he’s being funny, I hope that’s what his words convey. I’m also setting him up to play a bigger role in the next book (Final Cycle), so I wanted to make him a memorable character.

In writing plays, the axiom, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” can ring true. Playgoers can get a lot from an actor’s expression, volume, or emphasis. But since our readers can only see words on paper, the time book authors spend choosing their words makes the story truly come to life.

Thanks Elaine. You can find out more about the Logland series and about Elaine at her website.

Anne Louise Bannon

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