Your novel features characters from different countries. Should their dialogue, thoughts or narration be spelled differently just because their voices are regionally distinct and they come from different places? The answer’s no. Here’s why.
What's covered in this post
In this post, I explore the following:
Multiple Englishes, different spellings
There are multiple Englishes each with their own spelling conventions: British, Indian, Canadian, American and Australian are just five examples of English.
Most words are spelled the same regardless of which English is in play, though there are many that aren’t, for example ‘color’/’colour’, ‘judgment’/‘judgement’, ‘harmonize’/‘harmonise’, ‘behavior’/‘behavor’, ‘gray’/‘grey’, 'liter'/'litre'.
None are right or wrong, better or worse, or correct or incorrect. Rather, the way each version of English is spelled is about convention and style.
This post uses examples of American English (AmE) and British English (BrE) style to explain how to approach spelling/voice conundrums in fiction.
The difference between spelling style and voice
Strive for a mindset that separates style and character voice.
Voice isn’t something that’s spelled. Rather, it’s something the reader experiences, ‘hears’ with their mind’s ear. It therefore follows the base spelling style, regardless of where the character comes from. With that in mind:
The easiest way to illustrate how spelling consistency works is with a case study. Let’s take a peek into the world of 007!
A case study from the 007 files
I’ve chosen Jeffery Deaver’s Carte Blanche, a continuation novel featuring Ian’s Fleming’s British MI6 agent, James Bond.
The version from Hodder & Stoughton (part of Hachette UK), published in 2011, is styled as follows:
Here’s are three snippets from Chapter 2.
It was eight forty and the Sunday evening was clear here, near Novi Sad, where the Pannonian Plain rose to a landscape that the Serbs called ‘mountainous’, though Bond guessed the adjective must have been chosen to attract tourists;
‘Now, I’m ninety per cent sure he’ll believe you,’ Bond said. ‘But if not, and he engages, remember that under no circumstances is he to be killed. I need him alive. Aim to wound in the arm he favours, near the elbow, not the shoulder.’ Despite what one saw in the movies, a shoulder wound was usually as fatal as one to the abdomen or chest.
The Night Action alert meant an immediate response was required, at whatever time it was received. The call to his chief of staff had blessedly cut the date short and soon he had been en route to Serbia, under a Level 2 project order, authorising him to identify the Irishman, plant trackers and other surveillance devices and follow him.
The version from Pocket Star Books (a division of Simon and Schuster), published in 2012, is styled as follows:
Bond’s words haven’t changed. Bond’s nationality hasn’t changed. Bond’s job hasn’t changed. Bond’s narrative voice hasn’t changed. All that’s changed is the novel’s styling.
It was eight forty and the Sunday evening was clear here, near Novi Sad, where the Pannonian Plain rose to a landscape that the Serbs called “mountainous,” though Bond guessed the adjective must have been chosen to attract tourists;
“Now, I’m ninety percent sure he’ll believe you, Bond said. “But if not, and he engages, remember that under no circumstances is he to be killed. I need him alive. Aim to wound in the arm he favors, near the elbow, not the shoulder.” Despite what one saw in the movies, a shoulder wound was usually as fatal as one to the abdomen or chest.
The Night Action alert meant an immediate response was required, at whatever time it was received. The call to his chief of staff had blessedly cut the date short and soon he had been en route to Serbia, under a Level 2 project order, authorizing him to identify the Irishman, plant trackers and other surveillance devices and follow him.
Later in the novel (Chapter 26), Felix Leiter, an American, joins Bond on his mission. Here’s how Leiter’s dialogue is rendered in the AmE version:
Felix Leiter, a former marine whom Bond had met in the service, was a HUMINT spy. He vastly preferred the role of handler—running local assets, like Yusuf Nasad. “I pulled in a lot of favors and talked to all my key assets. Whatever Hydt and his local contacts’re up to, they’re keeping the lid on really tight. I can’t find any leads. Nobody’s been moving any mysterious shipments of nasty stuff into Dubai. Nobody’s been telling friends and family to avoid this mosque or that shopping center around seven tonight. No bad actors’re slipping in from across the Gulf.”
And here it is in the BrE version. Leiter is still American and still has the same distinct voice, but now the spelling has changed (as has the punctuation; note the spaced en dash and single quotation marks).
Felix Leiter, a former marine whom Bond had met in the service, was a HUMINT spy. He vastly preferred the role of handler – running local assets, like Yusuf Nasad. ‘I pulled in a lot of favours and talked to all my key assets. Whatever Hydt and his local contacts’re up to, they’re keeping the lid on really tight. I can’t find any leads. Nobody’s been moving any mysterious shipments of nasty stuff into Dubai. Nobody’s been telling friends and family to avoid this mosque or that shopping centre around seven tonight. No bad actors’re slipping in from across the Gulf.’
Overcoming ‘But it looks wrong’
Our brains can mess with us when we associate a particular spelling style with a character’s place of birth or residence, particularly if their voice is regionally distinct.
For example, perhaps they use idiomatic phrases that wedge them firmly in a country, state/province/county or even town/city that we’re from.
The British editor working on a book set in Southern California and written by an American author who writes in AmE might well struggle when a viewpoint character from Norfolk (the UK one where I live) turns up in Santa Barbara and mutters the following on seeing a cluster of huge ladybirds:
“Look at the color o’ them bishy barnabees. And big as a thruppence too!”
The spelling of ‘color’ might jar because ‘thruppence’ is so clearly unAmerican, so very British, while ‘bishy barnabees’ is particular to Norfolk. And yet the spelling is (and should be) AmE if that’s how the novel’s been styled overall.
An editor colleague recently reported this kind of problem in a Facebook group discussion. The novel was set in AmE, but the British viewpoint character spoke, thought and talked to herself in a Yorkshire accent. The first-person narration style deepened the voice still further.
‘The character's voice is really strong,’ the editor said, ‘and the US spelling seems at odds.’
The editor slept on it and the next day announced a simple but clever solution that had enabled her to overcome her resistance.
‘I mentally changed the British voice to a South African one so that I'm not so conscious of spelling variations, et voilà! It's suddenly clear as day.’
It’s a neat trick, a way of breaking the false connection between spelling and voice. If you come up against a similar situation, try it!
Adding regional flavour to voice
If you’re still worried that a spelling choice looks odd, remember that voice lies not in how the text is spelled but in what the character is saying, the turns of phrase they use, and the emotions and motivations behind their action (whether that action comes through speech, thought, movement or narration).
It’s worth bearing in mind, too, that language is often borrowed to the extent that some words no longer feel like, say, Britishisms, Americanisms, Canadianisms or Indianisms when they roll out of our mouths, regardless of how we identify or where we live.
Would I, a Brit, ever use the terms ‘cell phone’ and ‘movie’ rather than ‘mobile’ and ‘film’? Yes, I would.
How about ‘elevator’ rather than ‘lift’, ‘sidewalk’ rather than ‘pavement’, ‘aluminum’ rather than ‘aluminium’? Would I refer to ‘my mom’ rather than ‘my mum?’ Not while roaming around Norwich, but on a visit to Chicago, possibly, if I wanted to ensure people understood me. And almost definitely if I'd made my home there for some time.
Perhaps, then, the trick is not to be too precious about it, either when we’re writing or editing. Instead, we can consider the character’s environment and the degree to which the ‘local’ language flavour is something they’re likely to have assimilated into their speech, thoughts and narratives.
Those choices aside, the spelling style will be consistent. Unless …
3 examples of when spelling inconsistency works
There are instances where inconsistent styling will be called for. Here are 3.
The character is spelling a spelling
Imagine a Bond novel is styled in BrE. Bond and Leiter are speaking to each other on the phone and the line is terrible. Bond thinks Leiter has said ‘dissenter’. Leiter’s dialogue might go like this: ‘Not dissenter. The centre. C-E-N-T-E-R. Move to the centre.’
A proper noun is being referenced
Now imagine Bond’s telling Leiter that he’s received intelligence about a heist in the Rockefeller Center. Even if the novel’s styled in BrE, the AmE spelling of ‘Center’ should be retained because it’s referencing the name of a building.
Excerpts from written materials have been transcribed
Excerpts from diaries, newspaper cuttings, reports, letters, texts and so on can be rendered in the spelling style most likely used by whomever in the novel wrote them because they’re supposed to be authentic transcripts.
Imagine that Bond’s reading a document written by an American CIA operative. Even if the novel is styled in BrE, the spelling in the report would be AmE, unless referencing a proper noun that required a BrE spelling.
A note on suffixes, dashes and quotation marks
Finally, a quick note on style and how writers and editors need to consider whether they're being overly prescriptive. I recommend thinking in terms of common conventions rather than rules.
In AmE, it’s standard to spell with -iz- suffixes.
In BrE, both -iz- and -is- are standard. Again, it’s a matter of style.
Thus, in the Night Action alert excerpt above, if Hodder had elected to use ‘authorized’ instead of ‘authorised’, this would not have been a slippage into American spelling but a style choice – an accepted BrE variant that’s been around since the sixteenth century.
While most US publishers favour closed-up em dashes and most British publishers favour spaced en dashes when used parenthetically (see the Leiter snippet in the case study), it’s not wrong to used unspaced em dashes when writing in BrE style; it’s Oxford’s preference, for example.
Again, while it’s more common to see single quotation marks in BrE styling and doubles in AmE, this isn’t an unbreakable rule. Indie authors can choose, for example, BrE spelling and double quotation marks if they wish.
In all three cases, consistency is what counts.
Voice can be flavoured by what is said, thought and narrated, and it can show us aspects of a character’s personality, emotions, motivations and background – regardless of how the words that convey it are spelled.
Spelling is about style. The goal is consistency in the main, complemented by good-sense deviation when necessary.
That’s how the mainstream publishing industry approaches it, and editors and writers will do well to follow their lead.
Author and editor resources library
Visit the grammar and spelling page in my resource library to download a free booklet summarizing suffix variations in American and British English.
Louise Harnby is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in working with crime, mystery, suspense and thriller writers.
She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), a member of ACES, a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and co-hosts The Editing Podcast.
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