Writing Dialogue for a Character with Brain Injury

Multi-colored speech bubbles

One of the challenges I faced in writing my novel, The Accident, was creating dialogue for a main character with an acquired brain injury (ABI). I wanted to give this MC, Rick, a voice that rang true, but had to do so in such a way that his words remained comprehensible to the reader.

When we engage in conversation with someone else, our mind is constantly making little adjustments to help us understand what the other person is saying. We mentally plug gaps in “broken” English, take our best guess at regional slang, and read between the lines of both baby babble and drunken slurring.

Achieving this fluency in real life is one thing; re-creating it in literature is another. While you can probably still understand your closest friends when they’re ranting or sobbing hysterically, if a writer transcribed what they were really saying and captured how they were really saying it, you might find yourself struggling to keep up. The challenge for an author, then, lies in striking the right balance between realism and accessibility.

This challenge can be further complicated by restrictions on context, social cues, and body language. With a profoundly disabled character, there can be no storming out the door, clasping hands in glee, or shrugging. When said character’s impairments are neurological as well as physical, their behaviour might even introduce a degree of false narration ie. the character might cry when something makes him happy. This makes “show, don’t tell” especially difficult, and puts a lot of pressure on an author to get things exactly right as far as language is concerned.

Alphabet beads

Writing Rick would have been easier if profoundly disabled characters featured often enough in literature—and in sufficient depth—to serve as models. Whilst intellectually disabled characters can be found in Of Mice and Men and Flowers for Algernon, for example, few novels devote much air space to characters whose voices are nuanced by neurological impairment.

Ultimately, I decided to treat Rick’s unique language like a dialect. Now dialect can be incredibly divisive amongst writers. For every author who believes in mimicking dialect to a tee (see Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (particularly Jim) or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting a century later), another will argue that it’s so exhausting to read it detracts from the overall pace of the story. Success seems to depend on finding a happy medium between the authentic and the accessible, as Diana Gabaldon has arguably managed in her Outlander series.

It’s important that dialect be written respectfully. The aim is not to mock one’s characters and offend one’s readers, but to capture the essence of individual speech. In The Accident, I had my character Rick retain his pre-injury speech patterns to maintain some sense of narrative cohesion, while showing how ABI affects Rick’s entire relationship with language. So, he still says “How’s school?” to his daughter, Sarah, only now it sounds like “Hushu.”

In the months following her father’s ABI, Sarah relies heavily on her mother to “interpret” Rick’s communications; however, Sarah eventually becomes adept at understanding what her father is saying on her own. I struggled for a long time with how to mark this transition. Initially, I tried writing Rick’s dialogue in quotation marks exactly as Sarah hears it, with an italicized translation immediately after (“Hah chinfala.” Had chicken for lunch.) But I wanted to show that as Sarah’s connection with her father after his ABI evolves, she learns to convert his words as they come.

Blue equal sign

In the end, I decided to write Rick’s “lines” as coherent speech, but I used italics to suggest that it’s Sarah’s interpretation we’re reading, rather than Rick’s actual language. Hence, “Bu besht” is “Blue’s best,” and so on. There are still problems with this approach, particularly the fact that Rick is always represented as Sarah perceives him; however, as The Accident is first and foremost Sarah’s story, I decided that the imbalance was justified.

I look forward to a time when neurological disability is represented extensively enough in literature to showcase diversity in craft. In the meantime, I’d love to hear how other writers have tackled dialogue for similar characters. Tried it yourself yet? Seen any good examples elsewhere? Please let me know!

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