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The character Lee in Steinbeck's East of Eden is a Chinese-American who speaks in pidgin — until he explains to his boss, in very articulate English, that he does so for reasons of his own.

In my Gold Rush story, the protagonist employs a Chinese man who — he will discover — does the same thing in order to remain inconspicuous. I have two problems that Steinbeck didn't have:

  1. I'm no John Steinbeck.

  2. Some modern readers will cringe at the character's pidgin. If asked his name, the character would say something like:

    "Lee. Got more name. Lee papa family name. Call Lee."

Even if such talk is "accurate" — he's deliberately playing an early-20th-century stereotype, after all — I'd hate for any readers to be pulled out of the story by its "unrealtiy", or worse, decide to stop reading before the reveal.

What's a good way to handle this?

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I suggest having the narrator, and the reader, know almost immediately that he is playing this game, even if the protagonist doesn't find out until later. Like on the first page in which he speaks. This would at least reduce the number of people who call you mean names on Twitter before they get up to reading the part where you reveal that you didn't intend the character to be a flat, racist stereotype.

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The skill is to make the reader believe they are hearing an authentic voice without using one. Firstly, if you transcribe recordings of actual speech, it is disjointed, ungrammatical and incomplete. (If you don't believe me, try recording and exactly transcribing a conversation with a mate.) Totally realistic speech in a novel or play doesn't work. For example, I tried a perfectly natural repetition in a play and the audience didn't like it. Even Pinter wasn't using realistic speech.

Secondly, Steinbeck, like Hemingway, is a master of dialogue. In 'The Moon is Down' he creates characters by the way they speak, even though in real life none of characters would speak English. He creates the impressions of the way the characters would speak, not something realistic. I read 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' thirty years ago and I can still hear one of the characters speak, and he was Spanish so English wasn't the language he would have used.

In 'Stone Cold', a novel about homeless people, nobody actually swears. (The target audience is school kids and swear words make a book hard to teach.) However, the characters use certain words in such a way as to make them sound like swear words.

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  • I'm going to look for "Stone Cold" because avoiding swearing is another problem I have. thanks. Dec 3 '20 at 5:08
  • Robert Swindells is the author. Dec 3 '20 at 9:57

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