“G’day,” said The Emulator.

If Veronica thinks going forth is hard with this talented group, she's welcome to try to be Mr. Friday. Anyhow, I echo all the advice this week, but will desperately try to give you my own spin on the subject. I'll do that by telling you the story about how I learned my biggest lesson in writing dialogue. It all started with an embarrassing personality trait, a grimy bar, and a dude from Down Under…

The place was a serious dive. One of those with cheap beer, dim lighting, and a lot of B.O. A few beers in, someone introduced me to a friend-of-a-friend from Australia. The guy grabbed my hand and – like any proper Aussie – said, “G’day, mate.”

With a knee-jerk reaction, I shot back my own, “G’day,” as if I was starring in a Foster’s commercial.

My friend elbowed me in the ribs. Hard.

Gaw. Was I really making fun of someone’s accent to their face? Was I that American d-bag?

The Aussie’s eyebrows furrowed. “Ya from Austraila?”

“Ummm…no,” I managed to eek out. “It’s just…ahhh…didn’t mean to…sorry.”

After another awkward pause, the Aussie tried his own American enunciation of the language (‘Duuuuude, I…ah…don’t know – ummm – brah’). We all laughed and carried on with the night. A few red-cup refills later, my embarrassment subsided and I – as I do – got to thinking.

Was I mocking him? No, of course not. (I was in my early 20s and would’ve sold my soul for that lady-killing accent. In fact, it was an honor I pulled it off well enough for him to inquire.)

Then it hit me like a beer truck: This wasn’t a new trait. When I talk to my grandma, I always picked up her Texan drawl – “Hiii, Grand-MAWWW” (I still do it and my wife giggles every time). When a buddy uses “absolutely” in every sentence, so do I. Shoot, I’ve even caught myself mimicking other people’s facial tics.

That night unearthed a big realization – I’m an Emulator (no, it’s not one of the Strenthsfinder talents). And, for a long time, I was ashamed. Seriously, am I such a follower that I don’t even have my own facial tics? After all, our culture values those that stand out…not those of us who blend in.

Years later, I started to write. *Cue light from heaven and a chorus of angels* And, you guessed it, my Emulator is an asset. A huge asset. I can slip into other people’s vocal patterns and translate it to the page. Plus, since most communication – real or fictional – is body language…my adopted gestures are prime for exploiting in writing.

Now, my coworker and my novel’s sidekick might say, “interesting,” way too often. Or maybe my villain’s cheek twitches and she has a Texan drawl. This strange ability has become one of my greatest strengths and I encourage all you writers to feed your Emulator.

But what if you aren’t an Emulator by nature? Or you are, but don’t want to practice with socially uncomfortable situations? Some ideas:

  • Ask a close friend (not the spouse, I repeat, not the spouse) if you can follow them around, trying to sound like them and/or adopt their mannerisms. It’s just like that favorite game 5-year-olds play.
  • Go people watching and take detailed notes.  Later on – privately – attempt to recreate their stance, cadence of speech, and tone of voice.
  • Study a great actor in a movie scene. Pause it, and re-enact the part, capturing the nuances as best you can.
  • Read some good dialogue aloud, but in the character’s voice. Additionally, act out their actions – even those the author left to the imagination.
  • The best advice I can give is to follow what the other Muses said: pay attention to the people around you in Target, at work, or wherever. Drink the folks in so you can spit them out on the page later.
If nothing else, you’ll crack yourself up doing these exercises. Believe me. But if you really want to learn how to be a great Emulator…fly to Melbourne, have a few cold ones, and start talking to the locals. You’ll be slurring G’days in no time.


Great post, Bret! But it would have been hilarious as a vlog after a few of those Fosters. Maybe next time, eh?

I like the tip about acting out dialogue from another book, even the actions. I'm listening to Will Grayson, Will Grayson while I run on the elliptical trainer, and I keep nearly falling off the machine because I'm adding my own little arm movements while they talk.

That's beside the point. I was going to say, don't worry about being an Emulator. It's a totally legitimate thing to do - we all mimic each other's mannerisms to some extent. There's probably a really good socio-linguistic reason behind it.

Dude, I'm from Melbourne :-) Reading your post, I thought about greeting Americans with "howdy", but I'm too tied to "ey", which I exaggerate until I sound like a fake Canadian Arthur Fonzarelli ;-)

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