Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Creating Compelling Characters: Using Dialect

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

When writing characters and seeking to make each one a unique individual, take into account how each one speaks. This doesn't have to be something that is drastically different for every character. But it can be interesting to have one or two characters in your story that speak in a different dialect from everyone else. This could be a specific dialect for a place on earth, or a dialect you invent for your own mythical storyworld.

(Note: The following is pulled from a chapter on speech from my book Storyworld First, coming very soon.)

Dialect is the way a person speaks that is distinguished by his culture, social group, or the region in which he lives. His speech pattern is different from other varieties of the same language by vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar.

Authors change the way certain characters talk to set them apart from other characters. This is very important in historical genres, whether they be straight historical fiction or speculative varieties like historical fantasy or alternate history. Here are four examples of historical or regional dialect done well:

“. . . Don't let me hear no more of you, or you shall feel some more of me. D’ye hear?”
“I warn’t doing no harm,” Young Jerry protested, rubbing his cheek.
“Drop it then,” said Mr. Cruncher; “I won’t have none of your no harms. Get a top of that there seat, and look at the crowd.”
—From A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, a novel drawn from historical events of the revolutionary period in France. Jerry Cruncher speaks with a common dialect, full of slang and satire.

“This is not to be borne! Miss Bennet, I insist on being satisfied. Has he, my nephew, made you an offer of marriage?”
“Your ladyship has declared it to be impossible.”
“It ought to be so; it must be so, while he retains the use of his reason. But your arts and allurements may, in a moment of infatuation, have made him forget what he owes to himself and to all his family. You may have drawn him in.”
“If I have, I shall be the last person to confess it.”
—From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Most of Austen’s main characters are English gentry during Regency England.

“I'm — er — not supposed ter do magic, strictly speakin’. I was allowed ter do a bit ter follow yeh an’ get yer letters to yeh an’ stuff — one o’ the reasons I was so keen ter take on the job.”
“Why aren't you supposed to do magic?” asked Harry.
“Oh, well — I was at Hogwarts meself but I — er — got expelled, ter tell yeh the truth. In me third year. They snapped me wand in half an’ everything.”
—From Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling. Hagrid’s accent is a contemporary West-country English accent.

“Now, you vill come to verk for me here for eight months und zen you vill buy vone off my camelts, und I vill teach you to train zem and you vill get two vild vones und dat vill be dat. I haf just de animal for you. He hass only vone eye but, ha, dat does not matter—he is stronk and reliable enough for you, ya.”
—From Tracks by Robyn Davidson. The speaker, Kurt Posel, is a contemporary German Australian.

If you need to write a certain dialect, study it by reading works from that time period or by listening to people speak on YouTube or in movies and transcribing their words. 

If you are merely seeking to tweak a person's language, you might play with spelling, word choice, or syntax to create different dialects. Here are some that I’ve done or seen done in fiction:

•Stuttering by breaking up words with hyphens, and dragging out or repeating letters like Ts, Ps, Ss, or whichever letter(s) you choose to have your character stumble over. For example: P-pleassse p-passs the s-ssalt.
•Avoiding contractions to give a more formal tone to dialogue.
•Replacing the G from –ing endings with an apostrophe.
•Lisps shown by replacing all the Ss with a TH.
•The use of bad grammar like ain’t, gonna, and wanna.
•Word choice. I’m from Alaska, and we Alaskans refer to snow mobiles as “snow machines.” I’ve been mocked repeatedly for this. I also still refer to hair bands as “rubber bands” or “hair ties,” while teens call them “ponytails.” Word choice also differs between generations.
•Pronunciation. I always say the word elementary as “elemen-tair-ee,” whereas my husband says, “elemen-tree.”
•Foreign words. I have a Latina friend who, whenever she says a Spanish word, says that word in a thick accent. And she also uses some foreign words over the English ones, like when she refers to her brother as mi hermano.
•The syntax or word order when writing foreigners speaking English. Yoda also speaks with a rearranged word order.

When I worked on the Russian characters for my novel The New Recruit, I listened to many Russians speaking English, and I took notes, sometimes even transcribing their words so that I could see the word order they used. Here is an example of a Russian speaking English from The New Recruit:

“These three apartment are for you stay.” He motioned to the door behind him, then the ones on either side. “Boys will be taking first room, girls will be taking last. Between is kitchen, TV, and room for Stopplecamp family. When you are settled, come to kitchen. My wife is preparing dinner.”

The risk in writing dialects into your character’s voice is that some are so difficult to read that one must read them again and again to gain understanding. And that pulls readers out of the story.

We don’t want to do that to our readers. Fiction is about immersing them in our world. When we do that well, we get emails from readers who accuse us of keeping them up all night. And we want that. We want lots of it.

So take care and don’t overdo this. A little goes a long way. Don’t give a unique dialect to every character, but make sure that every word you allow your character to speak matches his or her voice. And also make sure you’re consistent with each character’s dialogue, because inconsistencies can also pull readers from your story.

Have you used dialect before? If so, what methods did you use to find the right words or syntax?


  1. This is really helpful. :) My WIP takes place in New Orleans, so I've been messing around with dialect in some of the characters. :3

    1. Ooh, yeah. That's a fun dialect to study, Emma.

  2. I love creating different voices for my characters. I love the feeling when you're reading a book and you know exactly who is talking by their dialogue.
    One of my characters has a pretty informal voice, but he loves big words. It's so fun to write and I hope it'll be fun to read.

    1. I bet it will, Krissy. Love the big words idea. Very good.

  3. This is so funny! I have an old west type character, and I use plenty of slang and stuff for her. I didn't really know I could do it till I saw it in a book, and this particular character jumped off the page and did cartwheels! I learned how to read/understand Old English by reading a fantasy book too, though that's sorta off topic ...

  4. Great post Jill, thanks! Most of my WIP is out on a sea with corsairs, so I have got a lot of piratey speech going on. Although one of them has a more sophisticated background and talks as such. :)

  5. I did freelance editing for a novel called LEARNT by Edward Baldwin--one of the underlying themes of which being that we're judged by our speech. The main character is African American, grew up in the inner city, but learned to speak standard American English in addition to the dialect he called "Choclish"--and then went back to teach English at an inner city school.

    The point of all that being that he did his dialect very particularly, very well, and it was so easy to read...but SO HARD TO EDIT! lol My job was to make sure he spelled each alternate spelling the same, and gracious. It was a task! Worth it, but keeping it consistent and easy to read is definitely a challenge!

    Personally, I'm now writing a Scottish Highlands character. I've been watching YouTube videos and taking notes, ye ken.

    1. That's awesome, Roseanna. Makes me want to read that book to experience that speech. And when I think of Scottish, I think of Liz Curtis Higgs' books. She did that very well, I think.

  6. Love this post, Jill! I'm a fan of dialects when they're not completely overdone. Used properly, I think it can add so much to the story and to the character. Sometimes you stumble upon one where every single word has an alternate spelling, and that's a bit too much for me. One of my characters has heavy traces of a Scottish brogue, but I opted to show in it certain words that he says differently rather than trying to write the whole thing out. Now that would have been difficult to read! :)

    I was quite impressed by your Russian characters in the Mission League series. Just from the way your ordered the words, I could hear their accents in my head, which is part of what makes writing with a dialect so cool!

    1. I think you mean Amos, yes? I liked his speech, Gillian. And thank you for the kind words about my Russian characters. Hard work pays off! It was very time consuming to edit their dialogue.

  7. I've read 2 books that used a certain dialect/spelling/etc. One was Captain Valithor in Wayne Thomas Batson's "The Door Within" trilogy. I don't remember one of his exact phrases, but one time he said something to someone like: Get up, you lily-livered weakling! Something like that. It was fun, since he was the only one that talked like that :) Another one is J.R.R Tolkien's "The Silmarillion." I'm trying to understand it, but not having much success. There are lots of hath's, thee's, etc. :) I don't have a certain dialect for any of my main characters, but the townsfolk in one town they go to reminds me of a pirate-y, sea town dialect/accent. Kind of like Laketown. For example: '"Who ar' ya, and what d'ya want?" The guard asked.' The like :)

  8. I think my favorite use of dialogue in a book, or in this case a play, was "Pygmalion." You could just hear the accent when you read Eliza's cockney dialogue.

    I've never given one of my novel characters a certain accent, but I've written a bit of Doctor Who fanfiction, so I've experimented with British slang. I've had a lot of fun writing that!

    ~ Kayla

    1. That's cool that you've written DW fanfiction! I'm working on one right now :)

  9. Sometimes when I'm reading a dialect enough, when I take a break from the book I have to think hard about the next words that come out of my mouth to be sure they're not in some accent...LOL!

    Also, my family always called those hair thingys "stretchies." ;) Ponytails? They're not ponytails. They're what you use to make ponytails...*shakes head primly*

  10. I call them "hair-ties." I have a character who is VERY sarcastic. :)

  11. This is a great post! I've been nervous about accents in books because I didn't want to make them so the readers couldn't understand them or it wasn't proper, but this has given me confidence because I have a lot of different accents in my books. Like my uneducated graftings have horrible grammar and use a lot of slang.

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