[identity profile] chesamus.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] ds_workshop
How can you write a convincing narrative voice from RayK's POV, and balance his canonical plain talk with the needs of your story?

NOTE: Most Due South quotes are from Katy’s no-frills link page to various due South Transcripts. (http://www.trinityslash.com/trans/)

Parts of this were adapted from a response to a previous post which is what led me to address this particular topic. I'd say 90% of the 50+ stories I've written are first person RayK, so I thought this was a pretty good fit for me.


Flashback - bear with me because it is relevant...

Long time ago when the earth was green, fans started writing their own adventures about their favorite fictional characters. About thirty seconds after that, they started mimeographing them to share with other fans, and then passing out xerox copies at conventions. Once the internet came into being, fan fiction (and porn) drove it through ftp sites, gopher, and then the web. Following along with the writers were critics questioning why they wrote, and how they wrote.

Well, the why was obvious - fans fell in love with the characters and wanted more. More of a character they felt was neglected, more of a story line that ended too soon, more of a relationship that they saw, but one at which the creators only hinted.

I thought the “how” part of the question was also obvious after I read my first fan fiction in the early 1970’s. A fellow Trekkie handed over a story he had written about a young man saving the USS Enterprise from certain destruction. Yes - my first fan fiction was a Mary Sue story that actually featured a fanboy. The story was terrible, of course - none of the characters were true to form. Spock, in particular, sounded like a cross between Robby the Robot and the Oxford English Dictionary.

I knew there was good fiction out there - several Star Trek books devoted chapters to it. They also discussed the bad fiction and what made it that way, and the common theme was bad characterization. Fans knew these shows backwards and forwards. They had the dialog memorized, they knew the combination to Kirk’s safe, that Sulu was right-handed and that Uhura’s first language was Swahili. They knew every catch-phrase, and yet, when it came to write these characters they didn’t get them right. Why?

Because they over-emphasized the traits which made the characters unique. Spock became a super-computer, Kirk became a combination of Admiral Nelson, Patton and Casanova, McCoy whipped up a cure in the 15 minutes it took Scotty to rebuild a warp drive, and Chekov became something out of Gilbert and Sullivan with a Russian accent.

I wondered why this mistake was made over and over again, and the only conclusion I could reach was that stereotyping on steroids was the easiest way to write. It let the reader know that the author knew these characters, too. Mulder broods - have him weeping in the corner. Skinner is in charge - great dom has to be the way then. Jim represses everything - aha! those memories will come out, lead to an emotional breakdown and turn him into a marshmallow. Poor Blair, dragged all over by his flighty mother - had to be abused somewhere along the way, and let us not forget that he’s had more sex than everyone in the station combined (or he’s been obfuscating from day one and is a virgin).

And that finally brings me to Stanley Raymond Kowalski. Dancer. Bit of an astygmatism. Still a trifle obsessed with his ex. Casual dresser. Gets his mouth caught on a word or two. Full of weird euphemisms and pithy phrases. Secretly passionate about his job. Ray Kowalski is pecular, no question about it. From his experimental hair to his bracelet, RayK is as different from Ray Vecchio as night is to day.

A Chicago cop played by a British-born, Canadian-raised actor with a background in radio attempting to duplicate a regional accent consistently (love him to pieces, but...).

So - how does an author capture the essense of Ray? How do you balance his cadence with dialect? Generally speaking, you can’t.

Do not get bogged down in the "des guys over dere" and "dos idiots" etc. Yes, Ray does have a bit of regional uniqueness to his dialog, but it's more Chicago by way of Brooklyn as spoken by a Canadian. I tried to write in it once, but then started micro-managing the dialog until it sounded like a bad Sopranos episode. I finally decided that if the words were chosen correctly, the reader would hear the accent without needing to read it.

Dropping in the occasion 'cuz' or 'ya think' isn't going to pose a problem, but I find reading an entire story with what I've heard one person call "authentic voice" pretty frustrating.

Consider Dr. McCoy’s southern accent. You wouldn’t write every he says in a drawl. You simply use an occasional y’all and remember that the reader is likely hearing his dialog in DeForest Kelly’s voice anyway. If you took the time to spell out every southern word, you are forcing the reader to translate as they read instead of trusting them to hear the voice in their head.

If I write the sentence:

“I’ll get the car...”

I could tell you it was spoken by Ray Kowalski, or Benton Fraser, or Richard Burton (the actor not the explorer), and your brain would supply the correct accent.

So - if not by dialect, how do you capture Ray? Listen to his dialog in any episode.

Ray snaps off short sentences, short phrases:

Yes you are! That's that thing again. You're correcting. You're niggling. You're doing that thing with the T's and the I's, and I say 'A' and you say 'B'. I say 'night' and you say 'day'. (Mounty on the Bounty)

You see? We're like a one-two punch. A duet. You set 'em up, I knock 'em down. You set 'em up, I knock 'em down. (Burning Down The House)

He uses a repetitive style to get his point across:

Look, I don't want to hear it! I don't want to hear it! I don't understand, I don't want to hear it! (Mounty on the Bounty)

I'm off the case? Why, what, why, what, why? (Dead Guy Running)

He's trying to psych me. Franco Devlin is trying to psych me. (Mountie and Soul)

His mouth can’t keep up with his brain and visa versa:

Ray is not stupid. Ray mentions that he went to college and knows enough Milton to try and catch Fraser’s bluff. His malapropisms and spoonerisms do not occur as frequently as we think. You can't rely too much on "butter my muffin" etc. - if you watch the show and actually count the times Ray says it, it's probably under two. Those well-known phrases are quotable and in perfect voice, so everyone uses them, but it's similar with the "Judy, Judy, Judy" line mimics use for Cary Grant. He never said it, but it's so much in his voice, that everyone in the audience recognizes it.

Possible Solutions
Listen to your dialog - read it out loud. I probably write more 'dialog only' stories than most. I generally hear a plot bunny coming long before I see one. The trick that works for me is reading it out loud - it's pretty clear to me when Ray is off key.

Change the POV of the story or the line. For example, write it as Ray, then write it as Fraser. Or say the line as Ray, then see if you could ever hear Welsh saying it. The generic stuff isn't an issue, but if you're trying to develop a "Rayism" and you can hear Huey saying it with no problem, then it probaby doesn't belong to Ray.

An example (forgive me for using my own):

Yeah, well, nice don’t pay the pizza, buddy.

Can you hear anyone else say that line?

It isn't easy developing that ear. You may have strengths in other areas and can tap into the willing and wonderful betas out there. Their constructive criticism can help you "hear" your story.

So one more example, then I’ll let you go...

“Dis is da ting der, Fraser, we gotta take care o’ dis or Welsh’ll kill me, you, and da wolf. We gots ta take care o’ dis right now. Stamp it, file it, stick it in a box marked done.”


“This is the thing, Ok? The thing is, we gotta take care of this or Welsh will fry us in butter and serve us up with tartar sauce.”

Which one would you rather read?

Date: 2007-07-03 12:31 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kill-claudio.livejournal.com
Psssst! Your LJ cut is broken! Will return with actual feedback when my brain starts working.

Date: 2007-07-03 12:59 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kill-claudio.livejournal.com
No problem. And fantastic post. This is really going to help me. I get heartily sick of hearing about 'buddies' and 'greatness' all the time, when the best thing about Ray's canon dialogue is the astonishing variety of it. In fic we never seem to hear, for instance 'Film at 11 or what?' (which he says in ALS).

Your tip about re-writing in different points of view is a great help; that may well stop me from slipping into Fraser or generic American when I'm trying to write him. Sadly, reading out loud never helps me because I can't get anywhere near his (Chicago cop played by a British-born, Canadian-raised actor) accent, but I suppose I'll just have to listen more carefully for his voice in my head.

There was another question I had about convincing RayK narrative, just in case you had any ideas. One of the things I find most difficult is that I have a completely different frame of reference to Ray. I grew up in a different decade and a different country. So if I want to write about, for instance, Ray at school, I have to look around the internet to work out the kind of clothes he might have worn. Because I wore a black blazer and a black pleat skirt to school. (And now I have this image of CKR in a black pleat skirt, but you take my point.) I was wondering if you ever have this problem with any of the characters? Considering we write about teh gay sex, having never experienced it, you wouldn't think this would be so much of a stumbling block, but for some reason it is.

This is going straight in my bookmarks, so I can come back to it next time I'm tearing my hair out over RayK dialogue. Thank you!

Date: 2007-07-03 02:16 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] spuffyduds.livejournal.com
This is well-thought-out and very cool. I feel a little better about not pushing the dialect now--I was sort of thinking the same thing, that people would hear the voice anyway if the content was near enough to okay, but I did vaguely wonder if I was being lazy. And "tartar sauce" rocks!

Date: 2007-07-03 06:47 am (UTC)
eledhwenlin: (Default)
From: [personal profile] eledhwenlin
Wonderful essay. Quite thought-provoking.

What's your stand on the issue of long words? Because Ray has problems saying some words, a lot of people seem to assume that he doesn't know these words, an opinion which I don't share. I think that Ray knows those long words, but - as with everything you don't say often - the syllables get jumbled up on the way from his brain to his mouth, because Ray's already three thoughts ahead and then he's stumbling on the word.

Date: 2007-07-03 01:42 pm (UTC)
ext_1611: Isis statue (Ray K)
From: [identity profile] isiscolo.livejournal.com
This is a nice and thoughtful post, and thanks for listing a few stylistic markers of Ray's speech. I'd love to see more.

Date: 2007-07-03 03:11 pm (UTC)
starfishchick: (ds - ray kowalski - zoetrope)
From: [personal profile] starfishchick
Ray is not stupid. Ray mentions that he went to college and knows enough Milton to try and catch Fraser’s bluff. His malapropisms and spoonerisms do not occur as frequently as we think. You can't rely too much on "butter my muffin" etc. - if you watch the show and actually count the times Ray says it, it's probably under two.

Good post, you make some excellent points. (Thanks for pointing out the Milton thing. <3 Ray.)

Date: 2007-07-06 06:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] vsee.livejournal.com
Fantastic post. You've made a lot of points that I had been thinking about. I was especially glad you pointed out his education and the fact that the number of times he stumbles on words is a lot lower than it would seem from how often it arises in fic. ( I'd be interested in a count, actually, but I don't have time to go back and watch all the eps at the moment. But I've always thought DS fandom could use one of those stats pages that someone compiled for The Sentinel that included things like how many times Jim dropped his gun, how many times you saw white socks on either guy, etc.)

Without trying to come up with some canon reason for the verbal stumbling? I really just think that one or more of the writers thought these little verbal gaffes were the height of humor. It always makes me cringe, and seems mostly like sloppiness in the script. The worst example to me is in Mountie and Soul, when he stumbles over the street name, calling it Vacuum St, rather than Hoover St. Is this supposed to be humor? It's a joke a toddler would make. Am I really to believe that Ray is so flaky? Because I really don't and that line makes me gnash my teeth every time. That ep also has Ray stumbling over the word diuretic and not knowing what it is, which seems unrealistic to me as well. Even Burning Down the House has Ray stumbling over a basic word and concept that most educated people, especially someone in law enforcement, would know--accellerant. So why do the canon writers DO that? I see it as a trend overall in the show that Fraser always has to have the answer, always has to have the key to solving the case, always has to be the one to suggest the next step, know the next piece of knowledge, etc. And that is one strength that fanfic has over canon, IMO. Things come out much more balanced, and they both allowed to be competent, brave, smart, heroic, scared, lonely, etc.

I also hate the word gaffe as a joke, because they stick it on to more than one character...Ray K, Frannie, and Dewey all have to bumble around like idiots over words ("Frost HEAVE" and "culling the herd" for Dewey, and "sliver me timbers" and about a million others for Frannie.) It makes me even pissier when I realize that the other two characters are supposed to be, well, forgive me for saying it, but kind of dumb. I don't think Frannie is dumb, but it is clear that the writers sometimes thought so, and thought it was hilarious. Dewey is a pretty shallow character, and an easy target for dumb as well. So how much does it piss me off to feel like some of the writers, some of the time, thought my beloved Ray was dumb? Well, it pretty much makes steam come out my ears. It makes me have to go read more fanfic and give buckets of feedback and love to those who understand Ray.

As to my own fanon about Ray and the word stumbles. Of course, I have internalized the thing about his brain racing ahead, and that seems fine, but I've always felt like it goes farther, to some self consciousness he has, and to his background. An earlier commenter here mentioned that Ray is a reader. I was delighted to see that, because I have always thought that, too. Ray comes from a background of two working class parents who wanted him to better himself, and that to me is suggestive of someone who would be likely to have a lot of coping strategies to figure out the world, including looking things up and reading outside of school. We know he didn't have a lot of academic success in regular school, but I can see him trying to figure out things by imitation, by reading, etc. If he picked up a word he hadn't heard before in conversation with someone, he may have had trouble memorizing it. If he picked up a new word through reading it in a magazine or book, he might not know how to pronounce it, having never heard it spoken aloud.

Do we have direct canon that Ray attended college, or is that pure fanon? I do believe that Ray went to college, and I happen to think he probably graduated, which doesn't seem to be the consensus. I guess I feel this way, because it would be so difficult to rise to detective without a college degree in this day.

Terrific essay. You picked great examples and covered so much.

Date: 2007-07-08 02:54 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ekaterinn.livejournal.com
I really liked your essay, and feel like I should jump in here to comment on Ray's misspeaking. I have a kind of speech apraxia that meant I spent years in speech therapy as a child and still have people asking me today what my first language or if I'm French (I'm actually Irish Canadian). If I'm tired or stressed, my speech becomes worse and I stumble over words if I've just read them or don't use them very often. I've always thought Ray stumbling over words were symptomatic of a sort of apraxia or aphasia (as you said), which definitely doesn't mean he's stupid! (and thank you again for making that such a big point in your essay!) Anyway, that's my two cents.

Date: 2007-07-08 08:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] phenyx-tp.livejournal.com
In the episode Easy Money Ray is talking about his father. His father wanted Ray to go to college but Ray dropped out to go to the Police Academy. "The day I graduated" (from the police academy)"it almost killed him. He said I'd still have a stink about me. The stink of bad people."

So yes, it is canon that Ray went to college. But he did not finish.

Date: 2007-07-08 10:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] brigantine.livejournal.com
Ooo, great post, and comments! Coincidentally, two things that have been in my mind lately are accents/dialects in print (whether in Due South or any other fandom), and Ray being of necessity smarter than he's often portrayed; kind of a pet peeve.

These people are detectives. What did they do for brains before Fraser got there? If Ray (either Ray) is as dependent on Fraser to help him figure things out as he is usually portrayed in the episodes, I can't help wondering if Beth Botrell is the only person who shouldn't be in jail. It's kind of scary.

Fortunately, most writers in this fandom seem to have a sense of this as well, and tend to make up for it in their fanfic, evening out the distribution of intelligence more equitably between Ray and Fraser. It's something of a relief.

I doubt I'm the only fan who, during the "Say Amen" episode thought, Wouldn't it make sense at this point for Ray The Detective to wonder aloud, "So the witnesses say the dead guy and the kid came into the room fighting, but the dead guy's lying out in the hallway. And who gets stabbed in the back during a knife fight, hm? Something's not right about this, Fraser."

Some day someone in fandom will fix that for me, I just know it. :)

Anyway, regarding RayK's accent/dialect, yes, I know exactly what you mean. I read/write in another fandom, often RPS, and the characters involved often have one accent or another. Trying to imitate in print the precise *sound* of an Australian, Cockney or a Yorkshire accent instead turns out terribly distracting for me as a reader. My "reading ear" so often comes to a screeching halt to wonder "What??" that I can't hear the character's voice at all.

On the other hand, I find that simply writing in the dialect's *style* reads rather better. There's no need to get carried away. All we're really after is to distinguish one character's voice from another within the story, and then our own memory of what that character sounds like takes care of the rest.

I haven't written anything for this fandom yet. I'd like to (couple of plot-bunnies snuffling around behind my sofa), but I'm still the nervous newbie, when it comes to making the leap from reading to writing as well. This is a very helpful post, as I have been wondering a bit as to how I might best handle our twitchy but charming RayK, were I to get up the nerve and make the jump. Thanks!

Date: 2007-07-09 04:08 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nos4a2no9.livejournal.com
Thanks for putting this together. I have a difficult time capturing RayK's unique voice and so I tend to avoid writing a lot of dialogue for him. This is an enormous help, and I think it was a great idea to include examples of his speech from the show, and also to stress the point that micro-managing his accent in written dialogue isn't necessary. Thanks again for the tips, and I'll definitely be making use of this post as a reference when I write my next RayK story.

Date: 2007-07-19 09:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] buzzylittleb.livejournal.com
Interesting essay. I tend to think that I'm quite good at writing Ray and I can still learn from this. And I do think the word stumbling comes from smarts. Entirely empirical self centered reasoning:
1) they're words I've read but close to never heard in conversation and it's the conflict between visualising these words and trying to sound them that's the problem
2) I get hang ups under stress. Not smarts-related. But there's this feeling I'm concentrating too hard.

I wrote something crazy long in a Rayvoice and one of the things I learnt early on was to be sparing and concentrate more on idiom then stock phrases. I'm insanely pleased with somebody in comments using "film at 11" because I semi-independently came up with a similar image (bad reality cop show) to describe life without Fraser.
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