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How to Effectively Use Dialect in Fiction Writing

Dialect can be a powerful tool to help writers bring the characters they have created to life. A writer might use dialect, along with accent, to distinguish a character's unique way of speaking—and in doing so, illustrate their place of origin, cultural background, or social class. It is critically important to use this device with sensitivity, as imprudent application can do more harm than good.

In the past, writers often used dialect in a way that devolved into stereotypes and other offensive characterizations—something that is unacceptable to today's readers—and also frequently impacted readability. While writers still use dialect today to create believable, authentic characters, the rules surrounding its use have changed and writers should be careful to avoid missteps.

Dialect vs. accent

Before we delve into the topic, it's important to understand what dialect is, and how it differs from accent. Dialect, according to Merriam-Webster, is "a regional variety of language distinguished by features of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation from other regional varieties and constituting together with them a single language." Accent, on the other hand, refers to "an individual's distinctive or characteristic inflection, tone, or choice of words." Essentially, accent is the specific part of dialect that relates to how something is pronounced, so a character's accent is, therefore, part of his dialect.

Is it necessary?

As the use of dialect in your writing can be a double-edged sword, it's important to first ask yourself if it is absolutely necessary for your characterization process. This website suggests that an easy way to determine whether you really need to use dialect is to answer the following questions:

Is dialect integral to the story (for example, is it used to reinforce the main character's outsider status in a close-knit regional community)?

Are there stereotypical expressions associated with the accent or dialect you should take care to contextualize, use sparingly or avoid?


A more considered approach

Once you have determined that dialect is truly necessary for your writing, you need to find a way to maintain your character's authenticity without crossing the line into caricature. This is especially a concern if the character you are creating is part of a culture other than your own.

One way writers are circumventing this issue is the use of what is known as "eye-dialect," which are nonstandard spellings of words that represent standard pronunciations. These words are pronounced phonetically the exact same way as the original word. In a dialect of people living in the Southern United States, some examples of eye-dialect might be: fur (for), tu (to), frum (from), deth (death), wuz (was), uv (of), and sez (says).

When the reader sees the words, although they are slightly misspelled, they are easy to read because the misspellings are phonetically pronounced the same way the correct spelling is pronounced. Therefore, as the reader is reading the words aloud in his or her mind, there is a natural connection and understanding that takes place. This stylistic choice the author made serves three functions:

  1. It makes it easier for the reader to read and understand.
  2. There is still characterization happening.
  3. As it is spoken and the misspelling is the author's choice (rather than the speaker's), there is no insinuation regarding the class or education status of the speaker.

In her thesis entitled "Writing in Dialect in Fiction: A History and Study," children's author Jennifer Sommer writes: The perpetual dilemma for the writer is to determine how far to go in accuracy in dialect without losing the reader.

Throughout her thesis, Sommer traces the progression of the use of dialect throughout American literary history to the present day, where she admits there is much conflict for writers who seek to create authentic characters without crossing the lines of caricature through dialect. As an example of modern literature that gets it right, she mentions the book Somewhere in the Darkness by Walter Dean Myers, a book set in the Bronx with African American characters. She notes that the change in dialogue to reflect characterization is minimal, yet effective. Specifically, she discusses how the use of language in dialogue immediately causes the reader to begin reading the dialogue with understanding of the accent, especially through dropping certain words, using "ain't," and incorporating short, choppy sentences, without turning the characters into provincial curiosities:

"Day before yesterday," Maurice said. "But check this out. Tony just nicked the dude and he was screaming and carrying on like he had stabbed him through the heart or something."

"No lie?"

"Yeah, hey, look, you want to play some ball tonight?"

"I don't know."

"You give up ball or something, man?" Maurice looked at him sideways. "We playing Richie and his crew."

"I'll see how I'm feeling," Jimmy said.

"You ain't going to play, "Maurice said. "You getting to be another jive dude, man.

Somewhere in the Darkness by Walter Dean Myers

This passage, in contrast to passages written in earlier, more controversial works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, show how dialect can be successfully used in fiction without going overboard, and thus creating caricatures or racially-charged stereotypes. Particularly, it can be accomplished through slang, eye-dialect, and dialogue that focuses more on syntax (the arrangement of words) than phonetic reinventions of words.

When phonetic reinventions of words are used in the extreme, as exemplified in some early American literature, the result is a character that is portrayed as highly uneducated and of lower social status. This use of language can come across as offensive and stereotypical, thereby ruining an otherwise great story. In modern writing, the best way to avoid these problems is moderation and careful consideration of the connotations of a dialect's use.

Applying the new rules

A contemporary author who applies the new rules of dialogue well is J.K. Rowling. Take, for instance, the dialogue of Hagrid, one of the most beloved characters of her Harry Potter series:

"I am what I am, an' I'm not ashamed. 'Never be ashamed,' my ol' dad used ter say, 'there's some who'll hold it against you, but they're not worth botherin' with.' An' he was right."

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

Hagrid's dialect helps to build his character and distinguish him from other characters throughout the series. However, instead of being over-the-top and difficult to read, the dialogue that Rowling writes for Hagrid contains more eye-dialect and syntax variation than other characters. These small changes are enough to allow Hagrid's "voice" to take on an authentic West Country English accent, as discussed in this article. Author J.K. Rowling's use of dialect for the character of Hagrid helps distinguish him from other characters.

 Author J.K. Rowling's use of dialect for the character of Hagrid helps distinguish him from other characters
Author J.K. Rowling's use of dialect for the character of Hagrid helps distinguish him from other characters.

Best practices for composing dialect

As a conclusion to Sommer's thesis on dialect, the author offers several suggestions for maintaining authenticity of character dialect without veering into the realm of caricature or overt racism. Included in those suggestions, she posits that authors should:

  1. Avoid respellings that would mislead readers about the status of the speaker.
  2. Pepper a narrative with occasional uses of the dialect. For example, to illuminate a Cajun character, you might reference items specific to that culture such as "jambalaya" (a traditional Cajun dish), employ greetings and kinship terms that use non-standard English, such as, "Hey Grand-pere" (how a Cajun grandson might greet his grandfather), or incorporate Cajun French phrases like "tu connais" (you know), "mais yeah" (but yes), and "cher/chere" (dear) throughout the text.
  3. Let the reader know explicitly when the characters have changed language, such as "Here the speaker turned to Jean Thompson, and changed his speech to English" letting the reader know exactly how educated or literate the character is when speaking in Standard English.
  4. Use well-known sentence structure (syntax) that exemplifies the dialect, such as in Cajun, "Why should I be ashame of that, me?"
"Writing in Dialect in Fiction: A History and Study," a thesis by Jennifer Sommer

Further, Sommer agrees that the best person to write dialect is someone who grew up or lives within the particular area or subculture that uses it. In such, a writer such as Paul Lawrence Dunbar was (in a sense) justified in using African American dialect in his writing, while Mark Twain was not. This could potentially explain why Twain's books have been banned in several places because the diction (word choice) and dialect used were considered offensive and unsuitable for a more informed, aware, modern audience.

A final note

Ultimately, dialect via uncommon syntax and alternate spelling of words can be a compelling way to differentiate characters and build characterization—as long as its use is limited, readability is maintained, and careful consideration is given to how it is applied.

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