Thoughts On Developing A Character’s Voice
by James Minter
by James Minter
I’m currently writing a spoof thriller. The main characters are a Londoner, who is a female café owner in her early 30’s; a couple from the Home Counties, who are both professionals and again in their 30’s; two American special Agents, members of the CIA; and two KGB officers working in London. Obviously, I’m looking to develop their own voices so my readers get a sense of who they are, their culture, ethnicity and background.
For the Londoner, Sheila, I’ve adopted a rather stereo-typical cockney slang written phonetically – so when she thinks she finks, and so on. Also I’ve resorted to using rhyming slang. For example when talking about money (she’s paid by the Russians to set up a honey trap), she refers to a thousand pounds as a grand, five hundred as a monkey, and so forth.
With the two professionals – Jimmy and Barbara – I’ve stuck very much to BBC perceived good English.
However, my difficulties arose when portraying the Americans and Russians. My American voices swing from deep southern drawls – howdy all - to east coast received pronunciation. These will be ironed out in the editing stages – I believe I need to stick to using terms like buddy and over-easy (they have breakfast at Sheila’s café or Limey’s and they don’t think much of the British). A useful looking website is http://www.manythings.org/slang/ which lists 280 American slang expressions. Provided I don’t use them for the sake of it, I believe this will give sufficient authenticity.
With the Russians I know they don’t have the letter “W”, and “H” becomes “X” but simply writing vhat do ve do now? makes them sound like Germans. It’s possible to pronounce what the Russians say for the letter “H”, but I can’t write it phonetically in English.
Also Russians seem to use lots of progressive tenses. Instead of We'll get together at five, they might say At five we are getting together. There also are no definite or indefinite articles (the, a, and an) in Russian, and they tend to leave out the verb to be. So I teacher, We not happy and It big problem are typical. They also tend to lengthen short vowels and put a “Y” sound in front of the letter “E”; So Eet beeg prablyem is also typical. In Russian, nouns do not take indefinite articles. So if I were to say Ya dala tebye kniga, it would directly translate to I gave you book. Therefore, forgetting to insert an indefinite article would be a more logical mistake for someone whose first language is Russian.
Given these difficulties I’ve decided to write the Russians’ dialogue in standard English first. Then I’ve enlisted the help of a Russian national living and teaching locally in the UK who will convert my text. My problem is not to get carried away here. If the text is too difficult to read then people won’t. So it’s a sense of Russian I want, not accuracy.
Is using a Russian national a cheat or a good use of resources? A useful website on this issue is www.absolutewrite.com. Of course, I welcome any advice or suggestions as to how to approach the problem.
About James Minter:
The Hole Opportunity: http://tinyurl.com/7tkrck7