Managing Colloquialisms and Voice

In my first draft, I tend to be more on the nose/maid and butler because I’m getting the idea on the page. I’m going through now and making the work feel more natural. The main plot of the book is fairly well laid out but the issue is coming up with certain parts of the dialogue that the protagonists have with the secondary characters.

The novel has a strong American southern voice and a sizable chunk of the book takes place in a small southern town. I’m concerned that the implied meanings in the dialogue may not translate clearly. If someone was described as “touched” or a “spare the rod sort of man”, would that make sense? Is there a limit on the amount of colloquialisms that should be used, even if that is how people actually speak? How much can be implied/left unsaid and still allow the reader to understand what is going on? Are there some red flags I should watch out for?

Sorry if that was a bit rambling.

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I’m born in Canada, lived a few years in the UK but mostly in New Zealand. “Touched” means, to me, a bit mental. Alternatively, “touched” can mean the person is feeling sentimental in a positive sense. “Spare the rod” is finished by “and spoil the child” - a Victorian saying. Are any of these meanings the ones used in the Southern US that you want to use?

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@JoHoughton Hi I was born in UK and live in Australia. Like Tannis I understand ‘spare the rod’ from the Victorian saying and would assume the person was authoritarian or strict. Touched to me is similar to Tannis, someone behaving or saying things oddly or unusual. I think touched comes from the idea of being touched by the hand of local gods or spirits, and so not quite the full shilling, to use another colloquialism😋

I don’t see anything wrong with using colloquialisms, especially if that is how someone speaks. It can support the picture that you have already drawn for the reader, of a view of that character’s personality. If I came across a saying I didn’t know I’d google it, but likely I would also be able to guess from your other info about that MC. Having said that, I wouldn’t tend to use too many because it becomes a pain for the reader to keep looking them up if they don’t make sense according to their own understanding and the story context.

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Most of the time, I find that the story has enough context around those uses that nothing is lost if I don’t entirely understand the colloquialism. It is only when knowing the meaning of the words is central to not becoming lost as a reader that it is a problem. I would also say that an author should be careful not to expect all readers to have the full cultural context even after looking up the meaning or usage in an urban dictionary. In other words, add the colloquialisms in for flavor and ‘voice’ but I suggest not expecting them to actually do any heavy lifting of meaning, context or understanding what is being expressed.


Yes on both counts. :grin:

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“Not quite the full shilling”, never heard that one before. I like it.

I was just reading through my work the other day and had that moment of “is this too much” doubt.

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Fair enough. Once I’m done with this round of editing, I’ll run it past a couple of beta readers again.


Hi Jo,
I could be completely out of line with this one (and if so, apologise in advance), but ‘touched’ to me could have also meant that word in the physical and improper sense.
Also, there’s so much out there in popular culture relating to your locale be it in literature, music, film, on streaming channels etc that you would have less background to fill in for the reader perhaps than a novel set in south east asia (just an example).
At the same time, what a coincidence your Q is. I was having similar doubts myself today when confronted with the face of a key character (the grandfather of the MC, whom the boy is playing the guessing game with about the old man possibly having been a spy). Reading up on Le Carre, I came across of photo of him, and it was my grandfather character (!) or close enough. That’s when I knew the voices weren’t right (yet). Where do we go to nail voice characterisation?

This is where language is interesting. To me saying someone was touched is the physical action. Calling someone touched is saying that they are bit off/strange but not dangerous. Its a subtle but important difference.

By voice characterization do you mean in terms of dialogue?

I was thinking more in terms of the narrative voice —in this case, that of each of the characters (and speaking from inside their heads).
But I don’t think that’s what you were referring to at the top of the thread.

I think I understand and I don’t know exactly. It’s just how people sound to me. People’s words are just an expression of their personality and, by extension, their background/worldview.

This is my I’m looking forward to the next summit. :laughing: It is so hard to talk about this.

No, I think you put it really well there, Jo! :wink: