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I am writing a piece which features two POV characters. A conceit of the story is that the POVs are writing their chapters, so each one reflects not just their personality, but how my characters would actually write.

One of my POVs is very sophisticated and cultured, and I have endowed his writing with complex sentences and sesquipedalian words and fancy references.

The other character however, is not a native English speaker (though she is fluent), and an average high school student in terms of writing ability. in addition, I want her writing to have an informal, almost conversational tone. Her chapters have been difficult to write, because I tend towards complex sentences and fancy references. As a preliminary step, I've tried banning semicolons from her writing, but I often find myself re-reading my own work and thinking, "No 18 year old would write this."

How can I ensure this character's writing is age and background appropriate, when my own writing is very different?

  • I tried to tag this as best as I could, but any help with tagging would be greatly appreciated. – user12678 Jan 17 '15 at 8:21
  • somewhat related: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/4394/… – user12678 Jan 17 '15 at 19:15
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    I wonder if it's known what method Daniel Keyes used in Flowers for Algernon to get Charlie's diary entries to fit his mental development (and decline). If he's ever written/talked about that, there might be things to learn there that would help you too. – Monica Cellio Jan 18 '15 at 2:37
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Boy does this sound familiar! I struggled for a year trying to coloquialize my YA characters. Every week, I would bring a new sample to my writing group. It became a standing joke, guess how old my POV characters is! The group's conscensus never got within a decade of my targetted age.

Then I received the suggestion which I will share with you now...

Buy a digital voice recorder.

Write your sophisticated character with a keyboard, carefully refining every sentence, phrase and word. Write your non-native character using only your own spoken words. Talk fast! Don't pause to find the right words. Instead, pour our thoughts out in words as if someone were fighting with you for the microphone.

Later, when you're transcribing the recording into your story, keep your fingers off of the backspace key and try your best to capture your words without adjustment or replacement. Yes, you are allowed to drop the "umm's" and extra "and's", but try to limit any other restructuring to grammar only. Finally, keep all your contractions! Dropping apostrophes, increases the formal correctness of any narrative, so for this charcter's words, don't drop them.

You will not believe how less literate you are when you limit yourself to spoken words.

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    Wow, that's a great suggestion. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jan 17 '15 at 12:00
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    Use that voice recorder and ask someone of the appropriate age group to 'say this message in your own words'. The recordings will be authentic and use a different vocabulary than you would, and after a dozen real examples it will be easier for you to imitate that. – Peteris Jan 17 '15 at 18:37
  • Thanks. I might have this issue as well, will have to try your suggestion. – Ville Niemi Jan 17 '15 at 18:48
  • You might also run the resulting text through one of those tools that analyzes the reading level (you know -- this text is for a 10th-grade level, that text is for a 7th-grade level, etc) just to sanity-check the results. I know I speak in semicolons and parentheses, for instances; if you do too, you may still need to do some refining. – Monica Cellio Jan 18 '15 at 2:33
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This is an interesting and thought provoking question: "How do I write as an 18 year-old, non-native speaker would write?" And assume I am not one. I found this site looking for tips on my iphone and I am not in a habit of writing on internet threads to people I've never met, so I apologize in advance for etiquette faux-pas. 2 words: computational linguistics. Since each human's language and vocabulary is unique, to replicate the sound of language or the writing of an "18 year-old, etc," one must have specific model in mind...or just let that 18 year old write it. However, as I imagine you're involved in some sort of exercise to see if you can stretch your writing ability, I believe that would require an extensive study of the patterns of speech of specific demographic. I imagine in time there will be access to on-line speech pattern analysis that will be applicable to defined percentages of certain demographics. This data-bank may be a by-product of an attempt to categorize speech for the purpose of developing natural language processing.

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    Is myspace still around? Lurknig on a teen forum would give a good data set. – hildred Jan 17 '15 at 16:37
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First, lemme say i like Henry Taylor's answer.

Hmm. Obviously, you're going to attribute more-sophisticated words to more-sophisticated people. It's not too difficult to tell when someone drops an "SAT word" on you. Your ear's a good judge. Try occasionally running a choice word of dialogue through a Synonym list. Then it's just a matter of consistently choosing words for that character that're similar in complexity. Grammar counts too of course. Bad grammar can be based in ignorance, but much of the time even well-educated people don't just disregard "proper" grammar, they pick and choose which rules they'll follow. For your more extreme characters, it's just a matter of polish. For more sophisticated/formal characters, analyze your writing and then correct the rules that you realize you've broken (ending sentences in prepositions, doublenegatives, etc.). For more immature/informal characters, think about the rules present that you've followed -and break them. It sounds artificial, but it's a mechanism that'll at least get you headed in the right direction -especially if the character doesn't inspire "naturally".

One way to TEST/gauge what you're writing is to run it through an analyzer. I'm no MS fan, but there's one included in Word. https://support.office.com/en-au/article/Test-your-document-s-readability-0adc0e9a-b3fb-4bde-85f4-c9e88926c6aa . At the end of a spell&grammar check, it gives you "Readbility Statistics" including word count, but also (most importantly for us) "Reading Ease" and "Grade Level". There're a bunch of online ones too. Top one in a search for me was https://readability-score.com . They're not going to write for you and they're probably not completely accurate, but they should at least get you Relatively where you need to be. It'd show you, with hard metrics, what dialogue is "smarter" and what dialogue is "dumber".

That's my plan anyway. Good luck to you.

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This doesn't answer your question, but:

I have given up on trying to make my characters sound different because:

  • I cannot write it.

  • I dislike reading it.

  • This is literature and can damn well employ literary language.

  • All viewpoints in The Song of Ice and Fire sound the same. They can sound the same in my writing, too.

  • It is better to have a text that reads well than one in authentic slang that many readers will find incomprehensible or in laughable fake youth speak.

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    Can't help but feel an expansion of points 2, 3 and 5 could answer the question (by giving a case that it's unnecessary) :) – Mac Cooper Jan 17 '15 at 13:23
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    The difference is that ASOIAF employs third person. The characters are not actually writing their own chapters. – user12678 Jan 17 '15 at 17:08
  • @eliyahu-g True. With third person writing it doesn't matter as much as first person to distinguish the character's, since you are getting their direct thoughts. – Abs Feb 20 '16 at 3:43
  • @eliyahu-g In first person writing, all dialog is (remembered and) rendered by the first person narrator. No matter if a novel is in first or third person, all dialog is always narrated by the narrator. – user5645 Feb 22 '16 at 7:45

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