Back in high school, my etymology teacher allowed us to spend several weeks researching any language-related question we chose as our final project for the semester. I wanted my characters to be as lifelike as possible, so I decided to explore the factors that impact how people express themselves vocally. That led me into the territory of dialects.
A dialect is a style of language that’s specific to a particular region, culture, or demographic. For example, English has many forms: African-American Vernacular English, New York English, Chicano or Mexican-American English, and Southern U.S. English to name a few. Some stand out more than others, but each one has its own set of rules, pronunciations, and idioms. Because of these natural distinctions, studying and incorporating dialects into a story will lend more diversity to the characters. Dialogue then becomes a conduit for revealing details like background, age, and ethnicity.
Although the wide range of dialects that exist in reality may not be useful in every fictional setting, a solid understanding of how a person’s environment affects their vocabulary can help you craft unique voices even in the most fantastical story worlds. As you begin to refine this aspect of your characters, you’ll achieve the best results if you keep three guidelines in mind.
1. Become Familiar with the Dialects You’re Planning to Include
English dialects can be simple with a modicum of quirks or complex with their own terms and grammar. Either way, you need to be well-versed in a dialect before attempting to portray it. If you’ve grown up around people who are fluent in it, you may already be able to apply it accurately to a character. But if you’re a Midwesterner like me, you’ll need to immerse yourself in British jargon before you put words in the mouth of a native Londoner.
Scholarly articles usually aren’t ideal sources for learning all the nuances of a dialect, although discussions that compare the differences between two English-speaking countries or cultures can be eye-opening. Instead, look for blogs, YouTube channels, and social media accounts based in the area your character originates from. Pay attention to how the owners use language in casual, everyday conversation. What sentence structures, fillers, and colloquialisms do you notice? Take plenty of notes you can reference as you’re working on scenes where your character talks or thinks aloud.
If you’re inventing dialects for speculative fiction, you obviously won’t find much inspiration online (unless you’re combining two or three real dialects). But you can strive to become an expert linguist for the society you’ve created and give your characters recognizable verbal tics by developing an assortment of slang, as Daeus explains how to pull off in his popular post on the topic.
2. Exercise Moderation
If you have a large cast of characters, and most of them speak in a dialect that’s a far cry from standard English, you’ll overwhelm readers. As with dialogue in general, the goal is to sound authentic without necessarily replicating every stutter and drawl.
Whether readers have heard a dialect before or not, they shouldn’t need to type a line into Google Translate to figure out what the character is saying. This may mean simplifying the dialect or bringing in another character who serves as an interpreter, asking questions and repeating obscure phrases in plainer language.
In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the main characters are unmistakably southern, but because the accent and colloquialisms are so pervasive (without being ambiguous), readers have no trouble following the goings on. And in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Irish, Cockney, and other challenging dialects belong to secondary or minor characters like Seamus Finnigan, Stan Shunpike, and Hagrid. Because these characters rarely, if ever, appear together, readers only have to deal with one or two foreigners at a time, which keeps the experience from becoming exhausting.
3. Don’t Pigeonhole a Character’s Speech Patterns
Two people with the same dialect won’t be echoes of each other—even if they share a hometown. That’s because history, values, occupation, and a host of other elements play roles too. A high-school dropout won’t spout legalese and articulately phrased arguments like a law graduate. Members of multiracial families, as well as military kids who frequently move around, will have been exposed to a myriad of dialects that could show up in varying degrees of intensity.
People also tend to adjust their language according to the context. This is known as code switching, and it’s a mechanism that helps the speaker to fit in. A twenty-something might throw around euphemisms like dang and heck when he’s hanging out with his buddies, but he’ll turn stiff and formal during a job interview. A student might abandon his African-American Vernacular English when he’s in a class with a strict teacher. And a character who has absorbed multiple dialects throughout her life might revert to her native one when she’s wrestling strong emotions.
A dialect is a style or habit, not a law that dictates how a human being talks. A dialect that’s pliable will seem much more realistic than one that never changes. Plus, it’ll provide an outlet to show rather than tell emotions because a character’s verbiage will shift when she’s stressed or uncomfortable.
Should You Incorporate Dialects into Your Story?
A dialect can round out a character and make him memorable, but it shouldn’t be treated like a crutch for an otherwise bland personality. Before you layer a dialect onto a character, ask yourself whether it’s needed. Does it reflect his background and enhance his presence on the page? If so, it may be worth adding.
However, remember that dialects also have downsides—they can be confusing and distracting if carried to the extreme, and come across as stereotypical or cliché if misrepresented. So, engage in thorough research, be sparing with your usage, and don’t restrict the voices of individual characters. With those tips in hand, dialects become tools for shaping intriguing and endearing character voices.
Allison Raymond has been captivated by stories for as long as she can remember. She was only eleven years old when she came to recognize writing as God’s purpose for her life. Although many years have passed since that moment, she has never doubted this purpose. Instead, she chooses to spend her time working hard to make her dream of becoming a published novelist a reality.
Allison grew up in Virginia, Illinois, and Oklahoma. She now lives in Missouri, where she is attending college in pursuit of a degree in Secondary English Education. In the future, she hopes to become a high school English teacher to share her passion for storytelling with aspiring young writers. Currently, she shares this passion on her personal blog and in a large number of her daily conversations.