Writing Dialect

It’s important to establish a unique voice for each important character, especially in a story with a large cast of characters. One way to do this is through the use of dialect or other special speech patterns. Be careful, though, not to overwhelm your readers with pages of phonetically spelled dialogue or whole speeches made in a foreign language (including “slang” speech) with no translation. Generally, a few key words or phrases are enough to tune the reader’s “ear” to the dialect.

In his science fantasy novel Otherland, author Tad Williams juggles an extremely large cast of viewpoint characters by developing a distinctive voice for each. A technique he uses effectively is to set up the expectation of a particular speech pattern with a few expert strokes of characterization. Then a few key words and phrases are sufficient to provide the illusion of dialect in the dialogue that follows. Take a look at a couple of examples:

She turned and found herself confronting a slender boy with yellow-brown skin. His short hair curled close to his head. He wore a necktie, something Renie had not seen in a few years.


“I believe we had an appointment. A tutorial?”

She stared. The top of his head barely reached her shoulder. “You . . . you’re?”

“!Xabbu.” There was a clicking sound in it, as though he had cracked a knuckle. “With an “X” and an exclamation point when the name is written in English letters.”

Light suddenly dawned. “Ah! You’re . . .”

He smiled, a swift crease of white. “One of the San people–what they sometimes call ‘Bushmen,’ yes.”

“I didn’t mean to be rude.”

“You were not. There are few of us left who have the pure blood, the old look. Most of us have married into the city-world. Or died in the bush, unable to live in these times.”

She liked his grin and his quick, careful speech. “But you have done neither.”

“No, I have not. I am a university student.” He said it with some pride, but a hint of self-mockery as well. He turned to look at the drifting plume of smoke. “If there will be a university left.”

It is easy to distinguish the speakers in this conversation, even with very little attribution because each character speaks with a unique voice. Renie’s description of !Xabbu’s formal and old-fashioned appearance sets up the expectation of his “quick, careful” speech, which is then fulfilled by the lack of contractions and the always correct grammar used in his portion of the dialogue.

An even trickier challenge is the character who speaks in a kind of slang-language specific to the story’s setting. In the following excerpt from the same novel, Williams uses several devices to help the reader decipher the slang: He includes a non-slang speaker as the viewpoint character (Renie, whom we met above) so he can provide “translation” through her thoughts; he introduces slang words and phrases slowly, placing them in an understandable context first, and then adds more to the mix; and he has carefully crafted the language itself so that carries its own internal logic–the words and phrases, if not precisely understood, evoke an image or emotion the reader can understand.

“A bomb went off in my school last week.”

“What? You never said a word about that!”

He grimaced in disgust, then wiped grease from his chin. “Not that kind. In SchoolNet. Sabotage. Someone said that some guy from Upper Form did it as a graduation prank.”

“You’re talking about a system crash on the net.” She wondered for a moment if Stephen understood the difference between the net and real life. He’s only eleven, she reminded herself. Things outside of his narrow circle aren’t very real yet. “The bomb that went off at the Poly today could have killed hundreds of people. Killed them dead.”

“I know. But the blowdown on SchoolNet killed a lot of Crafts and even some high-level Constellations, backups and all. They’ll never come back again either.” He reached out for the rice dish, ready for seconds.

Renie sighed. Crafts, Constellations–if she were not a net-literate instructor herself, she would probably think her brother was speaking a foreign language. “Tell me what else you’ve been doing. Have you read any of that book I gave you? . . .”

“Not yet. I looked at it. Politics.”

“It’s more than that, Stephen. It’s your heritage-it’s our history.”

He chewed. “Soki and Eddie and me almost made it into the Inner District. We got this flowpast off a guy in Upper Form. We were almost downtown! Open ticket!”

“Stephen, I don’t want you trying to get to the Inner District.”

“You used to do it when you were my age.” His grin was insolently disarming.

“Things were different then–you can get arrested these days. Big fines. I’m serious, boy. Don’t do it.” But she knew the warning was useless. Might as well tell children not to swim in the old fishing hole. Stephen was already nattering on as though she hadn’t said anything. She sighed. From the level of excitement, she knew she was in for a forty-minute discourse, full of obscure Junior Netboy argot.

“. . . It was chizz major sampled. We dodged three Bullyboxes. But we weren’t doing anything wrong,” he said hurriedly. “Just tapping and napping. But it was so flared! We met someone who got into Mr. J’s!”

In the final paragraph, the character Stephen launches fully into “obscure Junior Netboy argot” and the author doesn’t intrude with explanations. But by this point the reader understands that Stephen is relating his virtual reality experiences on the “net” and the reader’s ear is so tuned to the rhythm of the slang that the meaning is implicitly understood. Notice also how the sound of the words and the tempo of Stephen’s portion of the dialogue capture the essence of an enthusiastic eleven-year-old’s speech–the pattern is recognizable, even though the words themselves are strange.

Foreign Words and Phrases

A sprinkling of foreign words and phrases throughout a character’s speech can contribute greatly to the impression of that character’s accent or dialect. But you want to make sure that you don’t confuse your reader. Certain foreign words are in fairly common usage and require no translation. In her novel Desert Heat (Avon), which is set in Arizona, author J. A. Jance does not bother to translate the Spanish word federales, for example. But two paragraphs later, a character uses the word mordida, which readers are less likely to be familiar with. Here’s how Jance handles the translation:

Marianne shrugged. “Mordida doesn’t work all that well if too many people hear about it.”

Joanna wasn’t fluent in Spanish, but living in a border town, you didn’t have to be. Mordida, literally translated as “the bite,” refers to bribing public officials. Across the line, it was the time-honored if illegal custom by which Mexican border guards supplemented their meager incomes. If an American citizen happened to die in Old Mexico, getting him home could be a very expensive process, especially if the case received very much publicity. Then the delays could become insurmountable.

Writing dialect is a skill to be practiced, and it begins with careful listening. If you want to imitate the dialect of someone you know, pay attention to the words they use and they way they pronounce them. Pay attention as well to their syntax–the way they structure their sentences. Make note of all the distinctive characteristics you can identify and then pick one or two especially evocative ones to use in your dialect passages. If you don’t personally know anyone with the accent you need, rent a video. Just make sure you pick a serious film that was well received by the critics-the last thing you want to do is imitate someone’s caricature of an accent, or a dialect that is just done poorly by a less than skilled actor.

This article was taken from the course Fundamentals of Fiction Writing. Click here to register for the course now!

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