I was recently re-reading a section of Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, and was reminded that the character of Evelyn Howard spoke in a strange way. Her sentences were short and clipped, almost in the style of telegram messages. (Telegram messages tended to omit whatever words they could because one paid for a telegram by the letter. “MOTHER ILL. SURGERY TOMORROW. COME EARLIEST.”)
Evie’s strange style of speaking was not always easy to read, but it did certainly have the effect of making her speech highly distinct, when reading, which is a great advantage to the reader. It’s a problem somewhat unique to novels that character voices are extremely helpful in telling the characters apart; in a play or movie—presuming the actors don’t all look and sound alike, which was occasionally a problem when casting trends were too pronounced—you don’t need the characters to speak in markedly different ways because different people are saying the lines, each with his own (literal) voice, with his own face, and when two people are speaking two each other, from two different places. That said, the latter isn’t always helpful; when I watch movies with my wife I’m always having to remind her who most of the characters are. Be that as it may, it is important in novels to help the reader to keep track of who is actually talking.
Tagging the dialog with who is saying it is normal, and does help tremendously. That said, it only goes so far. The best way to give characters different voices is to have them say things that only they would say. Unfortunately for authors (and readers), people are not nearly as unique as this would imply. Most of us, in the same circumstances, will say much the same thing, at least when there is any sort of practical necessity guiding our speech. If a pan is hot and someone doesn’t know it, most people will warm them and a few won’t. Those are the only real options as to content.
The next distinguishing feature is how the thing is said, and there is a lot of variety to be found here. Some people speak very simply—”Pan’s hot!”. Others speak in a more flowry way—”Take care lest you burn yourself, for the pan you are about to grasp is hot”. Some prefer latin vocabulary to germanic, or at least longer words to shorter ones—”Exercise caution, the temperature of the cookware is greatly elevated”. Some people prefer to speak in double-negatives instead of positives—”Be careful: if you’re not in the mood to burn yourself you might want to avoid holding that pot without a potholder”. Some people use allusions whenever possible—”If you grab that pan barehanded the pot will will have company in being a tad unreflective in calling the kettle black.” Others prefer to curse and swear a lot—”Get a fudgin’ potholder you dingleberry or by gum you’ll burn your effin fingers, or my name isn’t Dufflestuff McGumblethorp.” And on and on.
This is the category into which Evelyn Howard’s speech falls, and it illustrates a problem with leaning too heavily on unusual ways of speaking: it can be annoying. Worse, it tends to get annoying precisely in proportion to how unusual it is because processing speech is itself a skill that depends on familiarity. There are two main ways to deal with this, but they amount to much the same thing.
- Make the unusual speech more subtle.
- Have the character use it sparingly.
That is, they both amount to making the reader read very little of the weird stuff.
I should mention that there really is a third option, though, and Poirot, himself, embodies it: make the unusual speech fun. Poirot has a manner of speech that is unique, to be sure, but it is also of a nature most charming. Whether it is actually French or no, that I cannot say. It is unusual, that one, most unusual. When he speaks, you know it is him and no other. But, mon ami, it is also of the fun most great.