Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Authenticity: How Much Is Too Much? Part II

Yesterday I promised to give a real world example of what I meant from my own writing. The best example I have is from my current WIP: WARRIOR-MONKS. If you aren't already a little familiar with it you can read the query above.

I'm not going to go into a whole lot of setup, but it should hopefully suffice to say that I have a character who speaks a rough version of Jamaican Patois in my novel. Jamaican Patois, also known as Jamaican Creole is an English Dialect heavily influenced by French, Spanish and several West African languages. It is very similar to, but not to be confused with, Jamaican English and Rastafari use of English.

Actually the character's accent is also influenced by Rasta Vocabulary, but that's not the point.

I've known some people in my life whose accents were quite similar, and have also been a long time fan of music like Reggae, Dancehall, Ragga-Jungle, and Dub, so I would like to think that I can write the accent with authenticity. That is also not the point.

The point is finding a balance that works for the level of realism and accuracy you as the writer want to convey while also not tripping the reader up, or drawing them out of the story. This can be an extremely difficult balance to achieve because each reader is different. Someone who is familiar with Patois or is at least curious about Jamaican or Rasta culture might be more drawn into a story with extremely accurate representation of the accents and vocabulary associated with it, but most other readers would not.

I'm now going to share a very small excerpt from my novel, giving you a clear example of what I mean. Then I will try to explain. Here is a moment when the character introduces himself, as it was written in the first draft:

“I an I name issa Jammy. Jammish Kerins fee real ceptah all man calls me Jammy K or a Jammy just fee shot, seen?”

This is probably a bad example because  the accent is not that thick here and the vocabulary not that strange, but it will have to do. Here is what the same lines would look like translated into pure English:

"My name is Jammy. Jammy Kerins for real but everyone calls me Jammy K or Jammy just for short, got it?

This version is not only dry and boring, but also completely out of character for this guy. I've haven't decided exactly how stuff like this will end up in the final draft, and I'm hoping for some help from my CPs, but I will probably write this piece, which again, is a bad example because there isn't that much difference, like this:

"I and I name is Jammy. Jammish Kerins for real but all man calls me Jammy K or Jammy just fee shot, seen?"

I'm not going to go into all the details here, but I and I is a Rastafarian religious concept and often replaces me, I, we and sometimes even other pronouns in Patois. Seen is a statement or interrogatory which is often used at the end of explanations to confirm understanding.

So that's it. I'm sorry this was such a poor example but I'm hoping you see my point. I'm a huge proponent of authenticity, and I'm a total detail nerd who can really go off the deep end if I let myself, but you always have to remember your reader, and try your best to allow as many of them to connect to your story as possible.

For further reading about Patois and Jamaican culture:

There is an awesome blogger named Sebastian, who does not blog very often, but when he does he sometimes writes poetry in Patois. You can read an example, his poem Maga Dawg, at his blog.

Two other great resources where you can read about Patois can be found here and here.

You can listen to some audio samples of how it sounds when spoken, here.

39 comments:

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Okay, I'm up to speed with the two blog posts.

Authentic is important, but so is readability. If your novel was written entirely in the first example, I'd give up after a page (if I made it that far). I prefer books where the flavor of the language is there, but it's a subtle flavor so that the pace and readability are still strong.

Great posts!

Jessica Bell said...

I have to agree with Stina. I tried to write a character with a lisp, and my editor told me to get rid of it. Just to mention that he has a lisp and write the sentence normally. I think you'll find most editors will want you to do this, unless the quirk is very minor and still allows the reader to get through it with an even flow. Have you ever tried to read Trainspotting? Whoah. Try it. And then I think you might want to reconsider the way you present your accent!!! :o) And I say this with total good intentions, not to mock your effort at authenticity!!! :o)

Sarah said...

Yes, balancing authenticity and readability is so tricky. One agent told me she fell in love with a book written entirely in a certain American dialect, but was unable to sell it even though editors agreed it was thoroughly well done. Really interesting example, Matt!

Candyland said...

I agree with the above. Authenticity is important, yes, but absolutely readability is first. You can add tidbits in other places about how Jamaican the character while sustaining the reader through the novel. Does that makes sens? I'm on cold meds.

Laura Pauling said...

I had no clue what he was saying, though it sounded very realistic. I think there is a middle line between sounding realistic and being readable. Unless you don't' want the reader to understand him. ;)

Matthew Rush said...

Hah! I hadn't thought of that, good point Laura. It's supposed to be a little confusing for the MC, but not so much for the reader, so it definitely needs to be toned down.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Dialect can be shown through things other than phonetics. Just a few word choices would be enough to sell the accent.

My name is Jammy. Jammish Kerins for real, but all man calls me Jammy K or Jammy for short, seen?

It's a blend of the two that's readable, but adding "all man" and "seen" gives the reader a hint of how he speaks. The words choice might pull someone up short at first, but I think the rest of your sentence is clear enough to get the meaning across.

Add a line that says he speaks "like someone from XXX" and people will "hear" the dialect in their heads without you having to literally spell it out for them.

DEZMOND said...

imagine the hell we translators go through when we have to translate Jamaican English :))
I once had to translate the lines of some drunken Jamaican taxi driver from London who was at the same time high on weed :) Don't ask me how I turned his language into Serbian :)

Matthew Rush said...

I think you make an great point Josin. I also think it helps to keep things more readable if you avoid dialect/accent type words that aren't really words, like issa or fee, and instead use real words in grammatically incorrect, but colloquially authentic ways. Like in your excellent example.

Laura Campbell said...

Of course authenticity and readability are important, but what do you want to do in the story? I've read novels with Welsh sprinkled throughout the novel. The author provided a pronunciation key in the beginning to help readers, such as myself, understand what the hell I was reading. Later on I noticed I could understand and pronounce Welsh on a occasion. Very helpful when watching the BBC.

Justine Dell said...

I'm glad I've never really had to worry about this in any of my books!

I've read a few books where there was slang/dialect things and I noticed they've never went full-out. Mainly because it would be confusing for us! Good post! Love the examples. I couldn't understand the first one at all. ;-)

~JD

Old Kitty said...

Writing accents is something I avoid only because I am just not confident enough!!! I'd like to think I'm able to do the London slang to a point but that's only cos I'm living and breathing in it!!

But yay for you and your research!! Wow!! I loved reading the patois - I hear it too!! Take care
x

Jamie (Mithril Wisdom) said...

In reading fantasy, my focus is on cultural aspects of the created worlds, and so authenticity plays a big part with me, even if it's fictional authenticity. Since most fantasy cultures and social classes are based on real life and historical examples, I expect to see a degree of authenticity and continuity in this real life basis. Dialects in fiction is something that intrigues me, and I've yet to come across any Patois in reading. It would be damn interesting to see a fantasy culture based on Rasta culture.

Summer Ross said...

Alot of people have already talked about this, but I have to agree with them and readability. If your audience is the Rasta type, or that is what you are aiming for then I think you would be good with the first example, but If your wanting a broader range of people from all walks you might want to give it culture but not actually write it out the exact way it would be.

But I agree with your idea of Authenticity.

Matthew Rush said...

I should probably point out that this character has about 20 lines of dialogue in a 120,000 word novel, but I do agree with you all. Less is more in these situations.

Ted Cross said...

It's a tough balance. I try to just have a few words here and there to give readers the idea of a slightly archaic type of language, but I do get a lot of them complaining that I need more of it. I think I did it the way I did mainly because of some article I read long ago where the guy said to just give a small taste of the accent or patois rather than going overboard. I may underdo it, though.

Shari said...

I didn't understand a word he said, but it sounded really cool. I have to agree with everyone else that usually less is more.

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

man, you do WAY more research than i ever do. I usually have to look up things like how to field clean a dove, or how fast can whales swim. One or two articles and i'm good to go

Tere Kirkland said...

I've had this same problem with dialect, and I think that if you think in terms of cadence more than actual phonetics, you'll have better luck.

I'm always wanting to add too much to my novels, because I love researching and even get a lot of ideas that way. If you can incorporate it into the story, fine, but if it doesn't add anything more than a trivia tidbit, leave it out.

Thought-provoking post, Matt!

Elana Johnson said...

You nailed it with this sentence: "The point is finding a balance that works for the level of realism and accuracy you as the writer want to convey while also not tripping the reader up"

That is what it's about with being authentic. Give me the real stuff but don't beat me with it.

Creative A said...

Again, great post! I thought I'd let you know that as a reader not familiar with this accent, the first example was too much--I couldn't follow. The final example, however, was well done. I knew what he was trying to say and even got a sense of the slang; it was clearly different than casual gang slang.

-Mandy

Tana said...

I'm just stopping by to say I heart your pink hair.

Carol Riggs said...

LOL, the pink hair. That's great.

Yes, your fix is definitely better than the first example, which was totally unreadable. I've read about this before, regarding dialects. Just concentrate on the flavors of the speech and not the specifics, because it's REALLY hard for the reader to figure out what's being said, otherwise. I like Josin's example, actually, which blends the flavor with real words. "Fee shot" is a big question mark, for instance; the reader would never know the character is saying "for short." The "seen" can be understood by context, however.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I prefer readability. My series is set in the south, but I didn't want to use southern twang in the dialogue. So I didn't. (Also helped that all of the characters are college educated, which softens a southern drawl.) I'm sure a couple readers have noted the lack of southern-style dialogue, but I felt it made the stories easier to read.

Bish Denham said...

Writing in a dialect is difficult and usually has to be used sparingly. I love trying to write the West Indian dialect, but I've learned to cut way back. De sentence dem du get too ha'd to read.

Becca Puglisi said...

I'm totally impressed with your dedication to getting this right, Matthew. So few people go the distance when it comes to research.

On a side note, I'm a huge fan of the Otherworld series by Tad Williams, and one of his futuristic characters speaks in a dialect and ends almost every question with 'seen'. Now, I wonder if he used this dialect as inspiration for his character.

On another side note, the pink hair is awesome. If Angela and I had pics up on our blog, we'd be all over that!

Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

I love some character seasonings, but like habanero, a little bit goes a long way, and too much will ruin the meal, er, chapter.

Great discussion here -- loved reading through the comments thread as much as the post!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'd offer advice, but I'm still laughing at Dezz's comment!

maine character said...

Great use of dialect there, especially in what you chose to translate and what to leave in - real good balance there.

Those different dialects you mentioned reminded me of that intro to Huckleberry Finn.

http://www.literature.org/authors/twain-mark/huckleberry/

But when I read that book, I hated trying to figure out what Jim was saying. It shouldn't be a puzzle, but like a flavor dashed on.

I think Elmore Leonard, for street slang, changes the order of words sometimes. So does Yoda.

M Pax said...

I agree with the others. Although I understood what your speaker was getting at, I did not understand every word.

I would strike a balance so you keep the reader with you without needing a translator.

Like the title, Warrior Monks.

K. M. Walton said...

I'd choose one or two key words/phrases and make sure the character uses them consistently. The reader will come to expect it from the character as they read. I definitely would not write the entire dialogue in authentic-speak. I'm thinking it would be too exhausting on the reader - who is left to decider it all out.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

That's really interesting. I think the same goes for all dialogue. It is, in a sense, more an impression of real speech than real speech itself. Do you know how many ums and ahs there are in real speech? Jeez, it's terrible. It's trying to find that impression that feels right, that seems to grasp the truth of the speech rather than the facts of it.

Natalie Aguirre said...

I can see that you really became super knowledgeable about the dialect and the culture in general. So I think if you can create a balance of the dialect while making it understandable, it'll work great.

Melissa Gill said...

It seems like phonetic dialect is highly frowned upon these days. I think it's all about the rhythm of the speech, rather than the words themselves. Jamaican Patois is such a rhythmic language I think you could carry that off while maintaining the readability.

Tabitha Bird said...

Love the flavor of the language. Interesting facts about Jamacian Patois. I didn't know that they used I and I.
Cool

Matthew Rush said...

Technically I and I is more of a Rastafarian term and is not necessarily used by all who speak Patois, but they do overlap quite a bit.

Melissa Bradley said...

This was very informative and I appreciate the mini language lesson very much. I'm with Jamie, I'd love to see a fantasy culture based on the Rasta culture.

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JM Leotti said...

Matthew, great post as always. I really enjoyed the overview of Patois. I agree with most of what's been said (Josin, Jessica B.) and I think dialect can be shown by using certain words to give the flavor of the language. Balance is key, as has already been said.

Jessica B. - I loved Trainspotting. It's one of my favorites. I agree, though. Whoah, indeed.