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Acceptable for the narrator to use poor grammar, etc?

edited November 2010 in Writing
Hello! This is my first post - these forums seem really great, and I'm looking forward to becoming an active member.

I have a question - do you think it's acceptable for the narrator of a story to use poor grammar, awkward language and/or wander off-topic if it serves their characterisation? In the novel I'm working on (my first!), the narrator is also the main protagonist. He's guilty of all the things I just mentioned - not incessantly, but very regularly. In my opinion, if I were to significantly tone these elelments down it would result in a weaker voice and character, but I wonder whether a publisher might be concerned that it will try readers' patience.

I'm currently reading The Catcher in the Rye, which also has a narrator/protagonist with these 'flaws', so clearly there is a precedent. The difference is that his poor grammar and idiosyncratic language are based on styles of speech that actually exist, whereas my protagonist's quirks of language are mostly invented because I find them amusing and cute.

Do you think this sort of thing is acceptable, or is it likely to frighten publishers and drive readers nuts?


  • Vernon God Little does something that sounds similar. It won the Booker Prize in 2003 so it certainly can be seen as acceptable. I found that book hard going to start with, but loved when I got into the flow of the language. Others I know have practically thrown it across the room in frustration.

    So the answers to your questions are 'possibly' and 'possibly'. It may be taking a risk, but better that than bland and boring.

    The thing that would concern me most is that fact that it seems you're doing it because you find that language amusing and cute. Just make sure it really adds to the book and the characterisation or it may end up being simply annoying.
  • edited November 2010
    It has to have a purpose for them being there.
    If you are doing it because you like it and find them 'amusing and cute' you may be on a slippery slope...but that is only my personal opinion.

    Welcome to Talkback by the way. :)
  • Hallo Jamie - glad you've found Talkback!

    I don't think that wandering off-topic would be a problem if that fits the narrator's character.

    Do you know anyone who would read some of your MS and give you an honest opinion about your character's speech patterns?
  • Well, as I say, the purpose is to give him a unique voice that's appropriate to the story (it's a surreal fantasy with comic elements, by the way). A point to note is that these aren't elements that I've consciously included or crowbarred in after the fact. I just started writing and this is how he turned out! And I'm surprised that people immediately equate 'amusing and cute' with 'frivolous and self-indulgent' - the book is meant to be humorous, so surely giving the characters amusing traits is entirely valid? Perhaps cute was the wrong word though - 'endearing' is probably a better description of what I'm trying to achieve. I will have to add Vernon God Little to my reading list - sounds very interesting.

    Don't really have many people who would be able to give me a solid critique, which is one of the reasons why I'm here - and thanks for the welcomes by the way!
  • Hi Jamie

    I think it was probably the way you phrased the comment "invented because I find them amusing and cute" that made it read that way - it did sound as though you had possibly added them to the character as an indulgence. Pleased to hear that is not the case.
  • [quote=Jamie]In my opinion, if I were to significantly tone these elelments down it would result in a weaker voice and character,[/quote] You can get away with a lot of toning down as a little awkward phrasing or wandering off topic goes a long way when it's written down. Your reader will very quickly get the idea.

    I suggest you use his dialogue to show the way he speaks, but tone it down a bit in the narrative. Most people do write more 'correctly' than they speak.
  • Hi Jamie

    I've written a couple of things in first-person present and I've also read things with distinctive first-person narrators, such as Catcher in the Rye, and Vernon God Little and Patrick Ness' trilogy. I've also had some very complimentary feedback from agents and reviewers about my work using this style.

    But at this stage, for your first novel and I'm presuming your first draft - I think you should just write it in whatever style you feel appropriate and only when it comes to editing the second, third, fourth draft decide exactly what to leave in and leave out. Don't stifle your creativity at the beginning, just write what you want to write. Maybe take a look at books like A Clockwork Orange for made up language but find your own 'voice'.

    Good luck with it
  • Welcome, Jamie - interesting question. One problem with writing is that you take longer to write something than someone does to read it, so while you may think you haven't overdone something, because of that time span,the reader may not take the same view. I agree with Tracy,though, write the thing first, then go over it and over it and by then you might find someone to share the book with, or, pay for a professional critique, which will do it the world of good.
  • I think it sounds fine. I was just about to mention Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy when I saw Tracy had! The voice of the main character, Todd, just has the occasional reminder that he's really just a farm boy - whenever he talks about something ending in -tion or -sion, he spells it -shun, for instance. It's enough to make his voice distinctive.

    The book starts like this: "The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say." Straight away you can hear Todd's voice.

    So I would go with it, but keep the vocal mannerisms in small doses. If you can do it well, it could be a great USP (Unique Selling Point) for your book.

    Vernon God Little is a great book, too - I just read it for the second time.
  • [quote=Tracy]for your first novel and I'm presuming your first draft - I think you should just write it in whatever style you feel appropriate and only when it comes to editing the second, third, fourth draft decide exactly what to leave in and leave out.[/quote] That's good advice.
  • I agree. First drafts are all about discovering your character and their distinctive voice - and about having fun.
  • Hi and welcome, Jamie.
    I agree with a lot of these posts.
    Your main character sounds intriguing and if you think you've found a distinctive voice you should certainly stick to it for your first draft.
    Good luck and keep at it!
  • Thanks very much for all the comments! A lot of great advice there. I'll certainly be making an effort to read the books that have been mentioned.

    I recently noticed that I've been inadvertently toning down the linguistic mannerisms as time goes by. I had been concerned that this was resulting in a more generic or even pedestrian writing style, but perhaps it's exactly what's needed.

    Totaly agree that it's important to just write the thing first and worry about the details later. I'm actually really looking forward to the redrafting and editing process though - I imagine it to be like sculpting something out of rough clay.
  • Hi, Jamie. Welcome to Talkback and keep telling us about your WIP. For a first novel, I've always felt that it would be unwise to present an agent/editor with some reason for rejecting your book, but the overwhelming concensus here is that you're likely to have an added element of interest. In my debut novel I've recently decided to make my protagonist more edgy and less of a 'good lad', much as Eoin Colfer did with his pretentious Artemis Fowl. Less attractive to mums but more inclined to interest teens. In fact he's opposite an even more feisty female. The language, however, will give no cause for editor concern.

    [quote=heather]It may be taking a risk, but better that than bland and boring.[/quote]

    I think Heather's right here, to highlight risk but point out that no matter what you go with in your later drafts, bland and boring are the twin curses of the slush pile.

    Good luck with your first draft.
  • Thanks for the warm/kind/helpful/interesting words everyone - you've made me feel very welcome!
  • Welcome Jamie - pleased to meet you.
  • Love the top hat, Jamie.
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