NaNo: Dialect and characters’ speaking differences

I’ve often pondered the way that my characters seem to speak differently from one another. When I started out (at age eight or thereabouts) to write my first serious story, intended for a Real Audience, all my characters sounded like me. Eventually I realized this wasn’t perfect, and I graduated to having some sound like my dad and his professor friends. This still wasn’t enough to distinguish them in readers’ minds, though.

By the time I was in my late teens and writing a Bildungsroman of juvenilia, I’d figured out that some form of “talking tic” or even an accent/dialect was a good way to single out a character. Nowadays, I’m not so sure it’s good, because the politically correct crowd would probably jump on anything you did to let readers know that this character is from Russia/ Jawja/ Joizee (especially if you used eye dialect, about which more in a moment.)

Dialect. Does it help you or hurt you?

Obviously, we’re not talking about the Mark Twain-Br’er Rabbit school of dialect. Many readers can hardly stand to look at those collections of characters on the page without grimacing, and often you can’t hope to know what was meant until you pronounce it aloud. “Ah’m a-goin’ thar drecktly, but Ah dunno if’n I’ll git anythin’ a-tall outa dem.” HUH?!

In my first serious fantasy tome, PALADIN SPELLBOUND, written around age twenty, my dwarves spoke in a mildly eye-spelled dialect that is reminiscent of a Tennessee farmer of the 1930s. In the prologue to PALADIN, I wrote something like:
The dwarf continued. “Oncet we git the ransom, thur’s no need for more finaglin’, is thur, now? Fiddlin’ around with them boys jus’ too dang’rus for us, y’see.” His thick, lumpy fingers caressed the dented pewter tankard. “Besides, oncet she’s saf’ly home, I’ll warrant they’ll be out to kill ever’ dwarf in th’ Kingdom, just t’be sure they git us.”

I know you will not believe that DAW asked to see the full back in 1986. But they did. Unfortunately, I had made other beginner mistakes, so this story (which should have been three books) never saw print. However . . . the dialect was a bit heavy, like two inches of peanut butter on a poor little quarter-inch slice of banana bread.

I did tone it down greatly before I sent the book out again, which wasn’t until 1989. I think it worked better the newer way.

The dwarf continued “Once we get the ransom, there’s no need for more finaglin’, is there, now? Fiddlin’ around with them boys ‘ud be too dangerous for us, y’see.” His thick, lumpy fingers caressed the dented pewter tankard.
“Besides, once she’s safely home, I’ll warrant they’ll be out to kill ever’ dwarf in the Kingdom, just t’be sure they get us.”

Whether you have a character who is from New Orleans (N’Awlins) or New Earth (T’Zillon), you will eventually have to deal with dialect or an
accent. Usually, you’ll want this characteristic to belong to a minor character, rather than one of your main characters. The reader is “in” the mind of the POV character, so he or she is understood to “hear” that stuff as the baseline-normal voice. Dialect will tag some of your more colorful and beloved character actors, and can do it well.

You’ve heard that the greatest fiction is that in which you can tell which character is speaking with no dialogue tag. Well . . . sometimes that’s true. (grin) But sometimes we can overdo it.

MIRANDA’S RIGHTS has that Russian Gypsy/Rom character whose origins are purposely kept sketchy (she tells people she is Rom, but she has an Eastern European/Russian accent, which would make sense, but no one really KNOWS) with the funny way of talking. I don’t know whether that is hampering its chances, but you can tell when Tatyana is talking, and sometimes she will get an idiom wrong in a humorous fashion.

That’s with contemporary novels, non-fantasy.

Since ALL the conversation in a fantasy novel is not-English, but is assumed to be translated for our understanding, sometimes it is convenient to have several languages in the world. You might want to occasionally [ADVERB ALERT–no, I’m not taking it out] have private conversations between characters wherein they go into dialects or languages: “[s]he said in Wrennish,” or “They spoke in their common language, Ailorre,” and/or even the occasional “he said in the Western dialect.” That saves the reader’s translation gland a lot of trouble.

Or tell the conclusions you want the listener to draw (although that’s supposedly a big no-no, it would take pages and pages to “show” it, and they really aren’t needed):

“Her accent had the polish of an educated city-dweller.”

“He had the slow cadence and colorful imagery typical of country folk, and so she surmised he had never been to university–or at least that he had not let urban life ruin him for country-lawyering.”

“The thieves’ cant susurrated all around them in the tavern. Alyx took a step back. Perhaps she shouldn’t have come into this place alone. . . .”

The one thing you probably *shouldn’t do* is “do it like the movies and TV.” They are NOT good examples. Worst thing in the world is to have your MS look like a recycled set of Babble-On Five outtakes. “Would somebody tell me what in the Sardinian flapk is going on here?”

Readers can be annoyed by “eye dialect,” even with single words, such as having a character say “gulls” or “wimmin.” If you want them to catch on, you’ll have to repeat the way they mispronounce the word in the next sentence, instead of respelling it inside the sentence.

“All them barren women.” _Wimmin._

A little also goes a long way; dialect tends to wear on the reader’s inner ear quickly [*ADVERB ALARM SHRIEKS*], unless done very lightly and skillfully [ALARM BREAKS DOWN CRYING]. If the book is set in the contemporary U. S., it’s better to have everybody speak standard American than to load up the cast with Aussies and Scots (as in a book I just read) for no reason other than to have them talk funny. I’ve seen this when judging romance manuscripts, and it’s kind of . . . weird.

Whatever you do, DON’T try to reproduce dialect syllable by syllable, or even word by word. Don’t try to reproduce pronunciation, unless there is some key element that ties into it. What happens is this: your reader (henceforth known as “he”) sees the first clues to the way your character(“she”) speaks, and thereafter will imagine that accent. So if you have constant strange spellings and “reminders” of the accent, the reader might hear a more and more exaggerated accent, and the whole thing will become ridiculous, no matter how accurately you portray the dialect. If you indicate just enough to suggest to the reader that
the character is, say, a ringing Southern belle, he will hear a normal accent, particularly if the character’s grammar or word order or slang reminds

The same question three different ways:
“Do you want me to do it?”
“Would you prefer that I do it instead?”
“You want I should do it, G-d forbid you should break down and ask?”

You just “saw” three different characters, right?

Suggest an accent through the occasional respelling of a word after the dialogue, or, in the narrative accompanying the character’s quotation, add some descriptive comments.

“Let me have one of them mint juleps.” _Mi-yunt jewlips_. Mocking Alanna’s accent, the customer winked at her date. Alanna shifted, feeling her bunions ache.

“Where at?” He’d never stop adding the unnecessary preposition, mostly because he knew it bothered her. If he wanted to say “whurrat?” like a hick, fine. Didn’t mean she had to talk that way when she knew better.

Or one character can make fun of the way another talks, so we know the pronunciation is supposed to be exaggerated.

“Oh, you are in the space muh-reeens_? When are you come-EEN back Planetside?”

The main character in one of my novels has a 100% Latino/Hispanic mother, and I occasionally have the mother speak a few words in Spanish. The rest
of the time she speaks English, with a few un-idiomatic phrases here or there that might show she isn’t native-born. As such a character
speaks, she will use phrases or words or syntax in a way that reminds the reader she’s not a native speaker (not EVERYONE who’s Latino will–this CHARACTER will). If you have a long bit of dialogue, she can speak standard English, but do something with flavor to keep your character’s voice in the ear of the reader. I don’t want to have people taking offense and saying I’m stereotyping, but in reality people DO this, so I’m kind of between Scylla and Charybdis [*Classical allusion alarm screams*].

You don’t necessarily need French words, though, to suggest a French accent. The way a character answers questions can be telling. One French visitor we had when I worked at Alcatel Lucent started many answers with “mais oui” or “mais non” or “eh bien” (which is like “uh”); in English, the idiom would translate as in Grey Poupon’s ad–“But of course!” “But no!” “But yes!”

“That is not the French way, _ma cherie (mon cher)_!” Don’t go too Maurice Chevalier, though. I had an Arabian character once, and I suggested his broken and accented English by having his grammar
slightly fractured, like the cartoon 7-11 clerk. This turned out to be an error. I still don’t know how to “do” that so it’s right without being hurtful to people.

Careful–don’t let it drop into parody.

Also, a steady stream of poor grammar out of characters’ mouths grates on the reader like sandpaper. A little goes a long way to suggest what you mean. It doesn’t take much irregular diction to get the idea across. Believable dialect comes, for the most part, out of using a collection of key phrases and eccentricities as the character’s verbal idiosyncrasies.

Many moons ago, an acting teacher (Mrs. Margaret Robison–rest her soul) told me that if a character has a certain trait–a stutter, a limp, whatever–an actor should display it to good effect during the first few lines of her first entrance. After that, just hint at it, without exaggeration or emphasis. Subtlety is the watchword. “A nuanced performance” rather than “she chewed up the wallpaper.” I think the same method works well in fiction. After all, you are all the actors as well as the playwright
and director here.

You can also have a character drop into his/her “down-home” way of conversing in response to certain situations (STRESS) or when talking to
certain people (THE BOSS INTIMIDATES HIM). It is a subtlety indicating the character’s comfort
level. Similarly, you can have her “unconsciously” or deliberately drop into the dialect of another “social class” (for want of a better descriptor) when talking to him. (She starts talking all uppity, and it sounds wrong.)

These are mere suggestions to take into consideration as you do NaNo. I don’t have the answers, as you know. Hope some of this applies to your dialogue problems (or non-problems.)

A hawk just flew over our side yard outside our kitchen window. NO, REALLY. (I know the painting above is of an owl, but it’s a similar vibe.)


Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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