If you’re a fiction writer, you’ve probably run into the age-old problem of characters’ voices blending together until their conversations resemble nothing more than an echo chamber of yours.
Crafting character voices is a struggle, and many writers also face the added challenge of writing a character with a dialect different from their own. Messing up one character’s accent has the potential to not only derail the entire narrative but also reflects poorly on the writer, so finding the right voice is vital. The last thing a writer wants to do is offend their audience with an offensive portrayal of their dialect.
Luckily, there are a few basic dos and don’ts that can be followed by any writer to ensure their phonologically diverse characters read like real human beings.
A Few Notes and Definitions
A dialect consists of several parts: the accent (pronunciation), the grammar, and the vocabulary. This means that a dialect should be expressed beyond phoneticized accent alone. If a character says “I ate a wee bit of scran in my flat”, the reader can perceive a Scottish character’s dialect without it feeling obnoxious.
This isn’t to say that you should just throw a few regional vocabulary words into your character’s mouths and call it a day; dialects are more than slang. Slang just refers to the words specific to a particular dialect, they alone do not encompass a whole way of speaking.
Additionally, misuse of slang and regionalisms can result in some offensive or inaccurate depictions. One unfortunately common example of this is when Hispanic characters suddenly throw in random Spanish words into otherwise standard American English. “Hello, amigo! I am going to go to the store to buy some chips, would you like to come ride along in mi carro?” Awful. Simply awful.
The above style of writing can not only come off as offensive but also inauthentic. Be sure to use a realistic amount of regionalisms in balance with other dialectical attributes. Too much slang can be seen as a parody, while too little risks robbing the character of their identity. The amount of slang that can be considered realistic highly depends on the specificities of the target dialect, so research (a topic to be expanded upon in a bit) is essential.
Another frequently mishandled aspect of writing a dialect is dealing with code-switching, or the practice of altering a dialect depending on audience/situation.
Scots and Jamaican Patois are two excellent examples of heavy English dialects (or English-adjacent languages, depending who you ask) that exist on a spectrum and can vary based on conversation. For example, a Scottish person who speaks Scots would be unlikely to say “bairn” (meaning “child”) in front of an American because the American person likely wouldn’t understand Scots vocabulary.
Jamaican Patois behaves similarly to this, but like with all dialects/languages, has some unique social and historical aspects to consider. As with Scots speakers, Jamaican Patois speakers change their speech to accommodate their conversational partner, but speakers may also standardize their English in professional settings due to discrimination against Jamaican Patois speakers.
Another example of code-switching can be found in African American Vernacular English, where users of AAVE often report having to use more standard American English when speaking to non-AAVE using people. How your characters use their dialects in certain situations has the potential to add complexity to the character, but if handled poorly can wreck the realism in a scene.
Take, for instance, a Scots-speaking character applying for a job in London. Realistically, the Scots speaker would know that their dialect is seen as “unprofessional” in some English business environments. How the character navigates the use of their dialect can subtly tell the reader lots about the character, like if the character is proud of their culture (uses dialect in full) or desperately needs the job (reduces intensity of dialect). Not taking this into account may result in sending misinformation to the reader about the character’s identity or intentions.
So how exactly does one convey the full complexity of one’s dialect without being stereotypical or confusing? It’s surprisingly simple as long as you’re willing to do a little preparation beforehand.
What Not to Do
While many writers express dialects by simply writing phonetically, or spelling the words to reflect pronunciation, there are a LOT of ways that this approach could yield something that’s confusing or outright offensive to readers. Therefore, it’s best to avoid blind use of this method. To use an example, take this exchange between an American and a Scot:
“Where did you park the car?”
“Ah parkt tha caer en tha gaeridg.”
For starters, the second line of dialogue is incredibly distracting. The reader no longer cares about the car, instead they’re trying to figure out what in the darn world a “gaeridg” is. Slowing the reader slows the story.
Second, this style of writing subtly makes prejudicial statements about the type of language in use. Why phoneticize one speaker and not the other? Is this a suggestion that one kind of dialect is more or less standard/correct than another? If a Scottish person were writing the dialogue, would it be written the same? Probably not.
The issue of inauthentic representation becomes critical if you’re writing about a group that has been historically discriminated against. Readers don’t want to read a book portraying Chinese American English as a comically oversimplified version of English, nor should they. The misportrayal of any dialect is a reflection of attitudes toward the people who speak it, and disrespecting historically marginalized communities is the last thing any writer should wish for.
Step 1: Research
Every dialect has a unique and systematic combination of accent, grammar, vocabulary, social status, and history, so start off by taking the time to familiarize yourself with the basics of whichever dialect you’re writing for. Never assume you already know everything about any one dialect, especially if you lack personal experience with it.
Also, try to be as specific as possible when conducting research. Simply researching “the American accent” may not help if your character is from rural Appalachia or the Midwest.
Begin your research as localized as possible, and be sure to find out if speakers of the dialect face any prejudices or use code-switching to guide your character’s usage. Unless the dialect is rare or understudied, academic studies and general resources shouldn’t be hard to find on Google. WikiHow may even be able to help you out with their many “How to do a ______ accent” guides.
Step 2: Separate yourself from the character.
Some writers may fall into the trap of using their own dialect as a base to build off of. This is fine if you’re writing a dialect that only differs slightly from your own, but for dialects with more variation, it’s helpful to separate your own manner of speaking from the work.
One time, a Scottish guy made fun of my American accent by saying “oh howdy, I’m so bloody ‘merican!” This is a perfect example of someone simply throwing regionalisms (howdy) and an accent (‘merican) over what would otherwise be their own dialect (use of “bloody”).
Essentially, to avoid being like that guy, take into account your own perspective. Ask yourself if your character’s expression is being influenced by your own. It’s only natural to drift back into your native way of writing, so always take a moment to reflect and review any research you’ve done. As long as you’re mindful and have done good research, you should be in the clear.
Step 3: Organize the grammar.
Once you’ve taken the time to research the structures of a dialect, you’re ready to start jotting down some dialogue.
Begin by practicing writing with grammatical structures reflective of the dialect. For example, according to a handy-dandy WikiHow article on southern Welsh English, it would be helpful to have a southern Welsh character occasionally repeat a clause at the end of a sentence, as in “I’m thirsty, I am”.
Variances like these occur in many dialects, including some variations of AAVE which use grammatical properties that differ from standard American. This may not be relevant for all dialects, but for some it’s key.
It’s also important to remember that there is no “right” or “wrong” dialectical grammar in English, and all dialects follow rules. This means that a character using AAVE is not making “mistakes” when they speak English, they are using a system that varies from other equally valid forms of English.
In short: keep your character’s use of dialectical grammar consistent. Their dialect has unique rights and wrongs that need to be understood and respected throughout their speech.
Step 4: Insert telling vocabulary.
This bit is very simple. Different dialects tend to have different regional words. British characters say “biscuit,” Americans say “cookie.” Writing these in is possibly the most effective and straightforward way to broadcast your character’s dialect and also the easiest (in my experience) to find research on.
For bonus points, try and see if your character’s accent would contain any shibboleths or specific terms or pronunciations strongly linked to a certain group. Think about the way people from Louisville are stereotyped as saying “Loovul” despite it not being reflective of the way they would pronounce many other similar words. “Louisville” is a shibboleth that city natives use, and would be sorely missed from any local’s speech. This same link between a term and group/regional identity can also be found in words like “hun” or “y’all.”
Step 5: Phoneticize (if you must).
Phoneticization is one of the more distracting ways to write a dialect, but there are ways to do it right.
An easy rule to stick to is to avoid phoneticizing unless a word’s pronunciation is famously associated with a certain accent. Focusing on only shibboleths can help you avoid making your writing confusing. It can also help keep you away from the trap of caricaturization, which readers will rightfully reject. In fact, with the right mix of other telling dialect marks, readers will often fill in the phonetics in their own minds without assistance.
However, if you really feel that your characters would benefit from phoneticizing, try studying the work of other writers who have successfully navigated phoneticization.
In Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Hurston wrote in her own dialect and respectfully implemented vocabulary and grammatical structures. This resulted in characters who spoke consistently and reflectively of early twentieth-century Florida. Her work reflects a deep connection with the dialect, and one should never attempt phoneticization unless they have an intimate knowledge.
Take a look at these few lines to get an idea:
“Lawd,” Pearl agreed, “Ah done scorched-up dat lil meat and bread too long to talk about. Ah kin stay ’way from home long as Ah please. Mah husband ain’t fussy.”–Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston, p. 35
Step 6: Remember the character and situation.
Is your character drunk? Scared? Getting a loan? Whether your character has a strong dialect or not, their speech changes based on the situation.
Writing monotone characters saps the life out of stories, no matter how exciting the plot. Characters are fluid beings who grow, change, and react to their environments. This should come out in their dialogue.
This is especially true for code-switching speakers. On a similar note, dialects should not dictate character. A sweet, adventurous Bahamian and a grumpy, boring Bahamian won’t talk the same despite having the same dialect. Your characters are more than a stagnant dialect, and their personalities should absolutely never be written as simple stereotypes.
Bringing it All Together
With a bit of time, all six steps will feel second nature, and you’ll have more confidence writing dialogue than ever before.
This method of research and representation is meant to keep you from both offending your audience and doing a disservice to the story. As long as you keep those goals in mind and follow these steps to the best of your ability, your characters will fly off the pages, dripping with realism and nuance.
If you still have trouble writing dialogue, don’t worry! There are many sensitive readers or otherwise fluent speakers of target dialects who can help you along the way if you get stuck. Watching movies and shows that represent your target dialect can be helpful, too.
Beyond that, the advice is simple. Since writing is all about practicing and getting better, the absolute best way to get good at writing a dialect is always to put pen to paper.