Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Y'All Come Back, Nawh, Ya Wee Lassies, Aiiight?

Accents, Slang, & Stereotypes -- Yes? No? Who Cares? And Where's The Lynching Rope?

1. Accents
Writing with accents is kind of like cooking with essential oils. A little bit goes a very long way. One drop of cinnamon oil is enough to give a standard pot of icing a recognizable flavor. Three drops and your guests will demand a glass of milk to wash away the burn. Six drops and you'll be sent to GTMO for chemical terrorism.

Yesterday, James showed spectacular instances of how to do them right and how they've been done so very, very wrong. Go read them.

2. Slang
Today's slang is tomorrow's shame. Do you remember when "Shawty" and "Hot Mess" were the coolest hippest things to say?  If you have tweenagers then you know merely uttering "dawg," "bling," or "that's so yesterday," will earn you at least an eye-roll if not a room-evacuation. The only good time to use slang in a novel is if you are writing a historical and using historically-accurate colloquialisms. Even though the era of near-instant publishing allows you to ride the wakes of today's popular slang, why hard-code an expiration date into your novel?

3. Stereotypes
Here's a topic for which I am likely to be keelhauled. I could write a tome about stereotypes, the culture wars, and the impact on art. The short version is this: the backlash against novelists using stereotypes in their work is less about challenging authors to break moulds and more about the reader searching for reasons to pan -- not the book -- but author for not yielding to reader's real-world social concerns. If all authors heeded the hue and cry, there would never be another smart Asian, gay designer, or fat white villain shaped by words on a page.  That would be a pity, because every person has many relationships with all sorts of stereotypes -- good, bad, or gloriously tumultuous. Authors count on those relationships -- on those instant and visceral emotional bonds -- to hook the reader. Naturally, a writer can develop a character beyond the stereotype if it suits the plot or they can belabor the stereotype because the character development is happening in the surrounding cast as a result of the lack of change. Still with me? All right, I said I'd let this be the short version. Super short version is that stereotypes are functional and should not be feared.

And so, dear readers, there you have my opinions on transgressions real and over-hyped. Agree? Disagree? Out hunting for the perfect hangin' tree?


  1. I did read a book that was really hard to read because of the slang. But it such a good story that I struggled through it. I'm glad I did.

    I do think that some slang is needed if that's the character's personality. Even in some of the Sci Fi that I read there are created languages. But there is usually a dictionary for the words in the back of the book.

    Good blog. Keep writing so I can keep reading.

    1. Hi Mary!

      I love it when authors create slang for their world. BSG is a great example of a little bit of "original" slang going a long way...and off the page in to the "real world." Who can forget the ubiquitous "frak"?

  2. If it must be done, I like slang that is unique to that character. For example, the heroine doesn't swear, so she makes up words or tweaks every day words to use as swear words. (sweet dandelion blood) That way you avoid dating your book and, hopefully, turning people off.

    I definitely agree that accents have to be handled with a delicate touch. You don't want to make it unreadable, after all.

    Great post! :)

    1. Thanks, Angel!

      I agree, terms/phrases that are unique to the character are wonderful glimpses into the depth of said character.

  3. I always liked Joss Whedon's response to slant: he created his own for Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I was rather amused by how much of it became popular in certain circles. He did the same thing for Firefly, by the way.

    1. Yes! 101 reasons to love Joss Whedon. He's such a master of the quips, that prime-time TV has become a drinking game of salutes to the Whedonverse.

    2. You're welcome on my boat James. :)
      Whedon did an amazing job with Firefly and Buffy, makes me smile when I hear it used.

  4. when do characters cross that line between stereotype to cliche? I have recently run into two books in which the characters and story were so cliche I wanted to bang my head against a wall. Joss rocks!