Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Authentic Voice

I recently read a blog post about authentic voice in characters of different races. The article was intriguing to me because within 13th Summer I have male character, Charles Washington, who is black and married to a white woman. He is from the south, but doesn't have a "deep south" accent. In fact, his personality and his speaking vernacular are very similar to my Grandpa McKee's, who was from Texas and white. Basically, his dialogue is sprinkled with "Honeys", "Y'alls" and "Sugars".

Charles has a daughter, Joy, who talks pretty much like any other midwestern teenager, but has overtones of a gentle southern accent. My other characters speak "midwestese", which is to say that they have a relatively bland dialect.

So, after reading this article, I began questioning the authenticity of Charles' character based on his dialogue with my protagonist. My main concern with the dialogue when I wrote it was whether or not the dialogue flowed. So, I really try to keep the dialogue pretty straight forward and maybe "season" it with a few words or phrases that give personality to my character.

Here's a for instance:

“So, what were ya’ doin’ zippin’ down that hill, there Mr. Scott?”
After so many years of being called Bing, he almost didn’t reply.
“I asked what you were doin’ zippin’ down that hill so fast.”
“Oh… just havin’ fun I guess.”
“Y’alls Mamma or Daddy ought’ve taught ya’ better than that.”
“But no one comes down that road.”
“Well, I guess I’m no one, then ain’t I?” The man opened his mouth and filled the cab with
gentle laughter.
“I probably shoulda’ told ya’, Mr. Washington goes to Hollenberg every morning on that road
and that you should watch out,” said Lonnie.
“Well, that might’ve been helpful, Mr. Lonnie, but don’t be too hard on y’self. Mr. Scott
here should know to look both ways. I mean, they teach that in Kindergarten still, don’t
they?” He winked at Lonnie.
“What’s in Hollenberg?” asked Bing as they pulled into a driveway that disappeared into a
single stand-alone garage.
“Oh, not much. I just doctor people’s animals. I’m a vet part-time and farmer part-time. It
pays the bills,” said Mr. Washington.
“So… should I call you Dr. Washington?”
“No, Charles or Mr. Washington, if you please.”

The previous was dialogue from the 13th Summer MS. Now that I look at it, I'm questioning the idea of "Y'all's". Which, in my experience, has nothing to do with being black. I lived in Texas for a summer back when I was a child and I remember one man, very white and practically blind, who spoke that way even when referring to one person. He would say things like, "Y'alls want a rootbeer float?" even if he was only speaking directly to me. My problem is that I don't want there to be a perception that I'm trying to have a character speak in a manner which is cliché or a mimicked version of how I might perceive someone of a particular race speaking.

I also don't want my reader to think that a character is necessarily ignorant by the way that they speak. In this case, Charles Washington says things like "doctor people's animals". This was something very specific to my Grandpa Wollenberg and generally something kind of midwestern. However, anyone who understands what it means to be accepted into and graduate from a veterinary school knows that it takes an extremely high level of intelligence.

I want my characters to be more than skin deep. Literally. Charles Washington has a certain dichotomy within his character. On the one hand, he's very affable, a loving father and husband, but on the other hand he's so easy going that people might perceive him as a bit backwards at first blush.

So, here is where we begin to question the idea of race and dialogue. My view, as an author, on Charles Washington is that his accent and manner of speaking have nothing to do with his race. My concern, though, is that there may be some perception by the reader that he does speak this way due to his race. How do we, as authors, express character through dialogue without offending someone at the first mention of a person's race. In my manuscript, Charles Washington's race is important because Joy being of mixed race is important when we explore Bing's grandpa's racism.

When we explore the book The Help, the blogger's argument is that the author only uses a particular type of dialect when a black character is speaking. Specifically that the character has a heavy southern accent accompanied by an associated dialect, whereas the white characters speak straight English with no real accent or dialect.

So, what do we do as authors? Personally, I believe that the most important aspect of a book aside from good story and plot is character development. I believe that it's important to create genuine characters. In doing this, there may be a requirement of dialect or of accent. However, dialect and accent should be applied appropriately regardless of race.

Being authentic is incredibly important to me and this subject is very important to me. So, if there are other authors out there with thoughts on this, I'd love to hear from you.

That's all for now.