Who Talks Like That? Book Nerds

A while ago, I talked about how people don’t really talk the way characters do in books. It’s true – mostly. One major exception is people without a lot of experience talking in the real world. People who learned their speech patterns from reading instead of actual social interaction. So if you read something and think, “Who talks like that?” The answer is book nerds. A.K.A. people like me.

So if you’re trying to establish characterization through dialogue for a scholarly-type, you may actually want the character to talk the way people do in books. Here’s a few traits to keep in mind:

  • Proper grammar: It is I. To whom am I speaking? 
  • An extensive vocabulary: I was being facetious. Can we mitigate that?
  • Out-dated words/slang/sayings/politeness: My apologies. Do tell. That’s the bees knees! Would that it were. Huzzah!
  • Jargon (from whatever genre): Oooh, nice alliteration! He did 5 pirouettes, but his spotting was all over the place. Toss it with the dead men.

And, as usual, that list isn’t universal. Depending on the reading habits, a person could pick up some unusual speaking habits but not others. If the person reads a lot of British writing, for example, he or she might start using British slang, speech patterns, or even spellings (I’ve been spelling “color” as “colour” ever since I read The Hobbit as a kid.). Someone who reads books set in the bayou might say things like “cher,” and someone who reads a lot of Shakespeare might say things like “forsooth.” So there’s plenty of room to adjust for what your character’s really into.

People can also lose these habits as they socialize more.

Ever notice how you pick up speech habits from people around you? (I’ve recently realized that I’ve started to use “dude” too much when I’m talking, and I know exactly which friend to blame that on.) If the character makes friends who follow trends, that character is going to end up learning more up-to-date sayings and slang. If the character makes friends who are into medieval history, the vocabulary is going to change in an entirely different way. And that’s not even including the special slang and inside jokes used within a group.

Another interesting fact to consider is that people can also revert to old learned behaviors.

New habits aren’t as powerful as old ones – they’re not as ingrained. And when people are uncomfortable with a situation, they tend to go back to whatever feels most natural or safe to them. That’s usually the way of talking they’ve done the longest. What they learned first. That means that if your character is a book nerd turned social butterfly, her conversation might change drastically when she gets flustered. Or he (whatever).

Lots of books have characters who speak with a stronger accent, change languages, or start speaking scientifically when they’re nervous. It’s a common human trait.

Personally, I tend to go in and out of a lot of different speech patterns (and dialects) depending on where I am, what I’m talking about, and who’s around me. That might be a writer thing (or a theatre thing). After all, the downside to studying dialogue is that all the options get lodged in your head, and you never know which one is going to come out. Honestly, I think most people do that do a lesser degree, but it can be very interesting to write a character who is aware of that.

Imagine that you’re writing a 1st-person narrative, and the main character started out as a book nerd but has since learned to talk more normally. Wouldn’t the way the character thinks be more like the way he/she first learned to talk? And wouldn’t the dialogue require a kind of translation?

That could be really interesting. It has a lot of potential for humor, too – I’m picturing the character thinking something ridiculous like “Oh, no! I befouled the air,” and then making fun of himself for not simply thinking, “I farted.”

I’m probably too amused by these things, but, hey, I’m a logophile with a love of drama, dialogues, and dialect (and alliteration). It’s what I do. I think it’s what most writers do. I guess that means our books could influence the speech patterns of a whole new generation of book nerds.

Uh-oh.

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