Saturday, March 8, 2008

Foreign inside and out?

I've been thinking about foreign characters--not blatantly outright, can't speak English, act different. But people who blend and come across as foreign because of a trait, or speech pattern. When I created Nick, I wanted him to come across as uber-smart and super capable--but I also wanted him to sound like someone who learned English late.

It's not broken--it's English coming through someone who has to consciously think about each word, and sometimes they get them wrong. If I'd dropped into Nick's POV it would have sounded just as clear as anyone else because he's not thinking in English--he's thinking in Russian.
Someone sat next to her and the row of chairs creaked. Corlis looked up to find her former partner, a big man with the ripped build of a professional wrestler and white-blond hair he kept cropped down close to his skull. His eyes were gray and his silence a sure sign he was thinking. Nikolai Radnov was as emotionally volatile as an eggplant.

“You do not look well,” he said, obviously picking his words with care.

She whispered, “I’m hell on my friends.”

Nick’s brows shot up. “So serious.” He smoothed a thumb over her cheek. “I have body armor.”

“Don’t you understand? I’m...bad for him! I can’t be around him without saying or doing the wrong thing...”

“Ahh...then we are not talking about me. We are talking about Fallon.” Nick settled his shoulders back against the wall and folded his arms. “Do you remember when you asked me to find him for you?”


“It was a bad place.”

Corlis shivered. “Yes.”

“South American jail. Men can disappear...into places like that. The point is Fallon should have died. He came back for you, Corlis. Do not be so quick to write him off.”

Corlis shoved the tags down in her pocket and stood.

Nick followed her up, looming over her despite her height.

He caught her hand. “Why don’t you try talking to Fallon?”

“Excuse me?”

“You do not talk to him the way you talk to me. If he cares for you, he is hurting. Do not do this to him.”

She jerked free and glared at him. “It’s not that easy!”

“I am a good matchmaker,” said Nick. “Just the other day, I connected two people up.”

“I’m the problem, Nick. I doubt you can fix me.”

“I can try,” said Nick. He hefted a carry-on the size of a small steamer trunk. “The first thing we will do,” he said, pointing to the escalators, “is stop in Renton. I know this boutique—”

“You shop?”

Nick gave her a long look. “I am a man, Corlis.”

She rubbed at her reddening face. “I know that.”

He patted her on the head. “No. You do not. But it is okay. I am Nick. I am not Fallon.”
A little goes a long way. Limited contractions, (I mean, really--who speaks like that except for people with English as a second language?) formal constructions. Occasional misplaced expressions...

Foreign, right?

Once you have it out there, it doesn't need to be reinforced. Like eye color and skin tone, it's just a blue-screen to sketch your characters on.


Alice Audrey said...

See now, I would have gone with more dropped words, and not so much avoidance of contractions. I've had all kinds of problems when I've tried to avoid contractions. Also, using a word, then having the character back up and fish around for a better one will sometimes come off well, used sparingly.

Unhinged said...

Actually, I agree and disagree with Alice. Someone not as familiar with English, or someone still trying to learn it (or any language) often drop word conjugations. If that's the right word. This also depends on how well the person picks up on the language. How long he's been speaking it.

But someone speaking a different language from his own probably would NOT speak in contractions (depending again, on how familiar they are with English).

“You not look well,” he said.


“I have the body armor.”


I like how you wrote this one:

“I am a good matchmaker,” said Nick. “Just the other day, I connected two people up.”

I think it'd be cool, too, to show a phrase of his thoughts in Russian. Or maybe he speaks one aloud and then translates it.

Jeanna said...

A blue-screen to stretch your characters on is a great image.

jodi said...

ah...but I don't know Russian, I just know Nick is from Russia. You should see me speaking German. I probably sound horrible from the looks I get, but I get my point across, "I want some chocolate cake, with whipped cream. Make it lots of whipped cream. And a coffee--lots of whipped cream. I feel fine, how are you? Two beers."

Jeanna, I think all books are a blue screen. :)

Ms Menozzi said...

Another important point is this: How well does the character speak English? How fluent are they? There are myriad differences in speech, depending on fluency.

Some speakers rely on the continuous form: "You are not looking well."

Some avoid contractions: "You do not look well."

Some combine different forms or tenses, including themselves in statments: "I am thinking that you are not looking well."

Some have little or no experience with English at all, and come across a bit "Me Tarzan, You Jane." in their approach. Usually, they'll sound a bit questioning every time they speak, since they don't feel confident: "You...not look... well?"

And on, and on... If the character is comfortable speaking English, chances are he/she has some measure of experience and/or fluency in the language.

However, the cute misappropriations are fun to write, as well. If you saw "Under the Tuscan Sun", you might recall Marcello's comment to Frances:
Marcello: "Ah, you think I'm trying to 'Pull you up'."
Frances: "'Pull me up'? Oh! Pick me up!"
Marcello - (embarrassed nod.)

True to life? Reasonably so, yes. (And a bit of an improv on behalf of Raoul Bova, who suggested the exchange.)

Just my two cents' worth, as an EFL/ESL teacher. (With only a few years of experience, mind...)