Some of the most memorable characters in literature stay with us because of one very distinctive feature: their voice. A character’s voice can show us their entire world: their upbringing, their education, where they come from, when they’re most comfortable and when they’re ill at ease. It also does a marvelous job of making sure that similar characters become separate individuals on the page.
Let’s look at how to write dialect in a story, how to make use of regional dialects, and how to avoid falling into harmful stereotypes in your writing.
What is dialect in writing?
Dialect is the speech pattern that distinguishes a certain regional area, culture, or community. It’s a combination of accent, sentence structure, and word choices that make up each character’s unique voice. Writers can use dialect as a literary device to communicate a character’s upbringing, educational background, perception of the world, and even their attitude towards themself.
This isn’t quite the same as the writer’s voice, which is a unique pattern of narrative storytelling that every writer has. In your story, some characters may reflect the voice that you carry around with you every day; other characters from different places or cultural backgrounds than yourself may speak differently from what you’re used to—for example, if you’re an American writer trying to write a British character, or a Canadian writer trying to recreate the distinctive southern accents of American dialect.
In these cases, your character’s dialect is something you’ll have to carefully build from one moment to the next. This can be a lot of fun and a very rewarding way to give depth and life to your characters; however, it’s also something that has to be approached with sensitivity. At best, a poorly written dialect can sound lazy and inauthentic; at worst, it can be offensive and stereotypical, alienating readers (and publishers) from your work.
What’s the difference between dialect and diction?
Dialect and diction are both essential ways to create your character’s voice. Dialect is the way in which a character speaks, while diction is the specific words they choose to use.
You can use diction to communicate the same idea in different ways. For instance, you could have your character greet someone by saying, “Good morning, how do you do” (formal), “Mornin’” (informal), or “’sup” (colloquial). Each one tells us something about the character speaking and about their surroundings. Dialect happens when your character says these words in a certain regional accent, or uses phrases that are localized to a particular area.
Unlike dialect, a character’s diction might change depending on their surroundings and what they’re trying to communicate. For example, though your character will probably use the same dialect for most of their life—unless you’re using it to show a major change in your character’s narrative arc, à la Eliza Doolittle—they may use different types of diction to talk to their best friend, their parents, a small child, or a potential employer. They may also choose to use certain words in order to portray themselves in a positive or more educated way.
You can use diction and dialect to convey your main character’s outsider status in a close-knit regional community, or to highlight the protagonist’s internal journey.
Although they’re not quite the same, these two literary devices often overlap because they’re both a part of the way your character verbally communicates.
The 5 types of diction
There are a few different types of diction your might use in your characters’ dialogue. You can also use different types of diction as a writer to create a certain tone or communicate something about the world of your story.
Formal diction chooses longer, more deliberate words, uses proper grammar, and features fewer contractions (such as “can’t” or “I’m”). People tend to use formal diction most in professional situations; however, it can also come through when they’re feeling uncomfortable in their surroundings.
You might use more formal language with someone you’ve only just met, or with someone with whom you have some tension. If your character is upset with their partner and is trying not to show it, they may begin speaking in a more formal way as they start to distance themselves from each other.
Informal diction is what we tend to use most in our day-to-day lives. People speak informally when they’re feeling relaxed in their environment. Most contemporary novels and short stories use informal diction, because it lends a degree of intimacy—reading it feels like hearing a story told by a close friend. Informal diction removes the wall between the author and the characters, allowing the reader to become fully immersed in the story.
Colloquialisms are where diction and dialect begin to overlap. Colloquial diction is very informal and uses regional pronunciations, slang, swear words, and idiomatic expressions to communicate. It’s used very rarely outside of speech—that is, never in essays or business correspondence—but in fiction it’s a marvelous tool for creating intimacy and authenticity in your writing.
Pedantic diction is the opposite of colloquial diction in that it’s formal speech at its most extreme. It’s speech given from a scholarly, academic perspective. Words are chosen very deliberately to convey a clear, educated meaning.
Sometimes in fiction a writer will use pedantic writing as a way to juxtapose the extraordinary events of the story; for example, in Gulliver’s Travels, the narrator speaks in pedantic diction to give himself an academic authority in spite of the fantastical happenings he’s about to recount.
Unlike pedantic diction, which deals in concrete ideas, abstract diction deals with the intangible. This is where the writer begins to use sensory ideas to convey and inspire emotion. Abstract diction tends to be more subjective and poetic, using longer and more vivid sentences, and dealing in feelings rather than facts.
What do dialect and diction communicate about character?
The way we talk conveys an awful lot about our relationship with the world around us. Our word choice and the way we put those words into action might show others where we come from, what sort of educational background we have, what our upbringing was like, how we want the world to perceive us, and how at ease we feel with the person we’re conversing with.
Though the world is becoming more unified than it has ever been, many of us will consciously or unconsciously look for clues in the way people talk. You can use these clues when creating characters in your own writing.
1. Regional origin
Even when your characters all speak the same language, the way they speak it can show which part of the world they come from. For example, anglophone Europeans and North Americans will often use different vocabularies, even though they’re both speaking English. An American will say “elevator” while a British person will say “lift,” or an American will describe a car as having a “trunk” and “hood” while in England that same car would have a “boot” and “bonnet.”
Even within the same country you can have wildly different regional dialects; a character from California won’t necessarily speak in the same way as one from Texas or New York. In the UK, certain areas such as London or Manchester have very distinctive accents, stereotypical expressions, and ways of speaking.
Using these different dialects in your writing is a great way to show where your characters are most comfortable, where they might feel alienated, and where they might bring in cultural preconceptions or values that contribute to the plot.
2. Level of education
In addition to their regional vocabulary, the way a character forms their sentences can show a lot about how they’ve been taught. Well-educated people will often use large words and small ones together at random, because they’re equally at ease with all aspects of the language. Characters who use many large words in a row and little else are probably doing so intentionally to try and project a certain image.
You can use expansive vocabulary to great effect in juxtaposition with younger or more impoverished characters to suggest a love for learning and a drive to seek out knowledge on their own. In Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, the main character uses long, complex words (including some she makes up as she goes). Her diction separates her from the people around her and shows that she has a different way of looking at the world.
3. State of mind
Even when two characters have the same background, they might speak in different ways depending on what sort of effect they’re trying to have on their surroundings. A character who speaks in short, closed sentences may be trying not to draw attention to themselves, while a character who speaks in long run-on sentences may be trying too hard to please, or they may have a tendency to ramble on when they’re under pressure.
You can also show that the way a character forms their sentences changes depending on who they’re with—longer, more descriptive sentences for people they’re relaxed around, and shorter, more monosyllabic sentences in less comfortable situations. You may show them speaking in a more colloquial way around people they enjoy spending time with and using a more formal diction around people whose company they don’t care for.
Once you begin to explore these slight verbal changes in your writing, you might start noticing them in your friends and family too!
4. Comprehension of language
Finally, the way a character speaks and assembles their sentences can show us how familiar they are with the language. Someone who’s just beginning to learn English will often speak in fractured sentences, relying on important keywords to get their point across. Someone closer to bilingual might speak English clearly and comfortably, but have difficulty with certain sounds not present in their native language. In times of stress or excitement they may use English vocabulary but revert to alternate sentence structures of other languages.
Colloquialisms like slang, swearing, and words that don’t directly translate tend to stick around the longest, so your character might pepper in select words that they are most familiar with. Because swearing tends to be instinctive, rather than cognitive, people commonly refer back to their native language in these moments.
People that speak more than one language in their day-to-day life have a tendency to float in and out of one and another, which is where we get hybrid dialects like “Frenglish” (French mashed together with English) and “Spanglish” (Spanish mixed with English).
The 3 pitfalls of using dialect in writing
Although dialect is a wonderful literary device for creating vivid, believable characters, it’s something that can cause a lot of problems if it isn’t handled with a certain amount of finesse. When used clumsily or incorrectly, dialect can do your story more harm than good. Let’s look at some of the potential hazards of using dialect in your writing.
1. It can distract from your story
Dialect that’s hard on the eyes can pull your reader out of your story and make it difficult for them to keep up with what’s happening. Many writers have a temptation to use phonetic spellings or nonstandard spellings to convey a character’s accent. While it might make sense to your ear as you’re writing it, when a reader sees your phonetic dialect sprawled across the page it can feel as though they’ve been suddenly saddled with a foreign language!
For example, in the famous gothic novel Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë attempts to create a strong Yorkshire accent on the page with her character Joseph who says, “There’s nobbut t’ missis; and shoo’ll not oppen ‘t an ye mak’ yer flaysome dins till neeght.” (“There’s nobody but the missus, and she’ll not open if you make your fearsome din the whole night.”) To our modern eyes, that’s barely intelligible. Instead of relying on phonetic spelling, choose just one or two regional words and one or two variations in vowels or consonants to distinguish your character’s way of speaking.
2. It can feel inauthentic
It can be difficult for non-native speakers to accurately convey the language of another area or community. Without spending time really getting to know the speech patterns of another people, it’s very probable that your dialogue will sound artificial. Many new writers make the mistake of trying to copy accents that they’ve heard in media like TV series or cartoons, which are very often spoken by actors who aren’t native speakers either. This can lead to distracting stereotypes in your writing.
3. It can be offensive
This same lack of authenticity can lead to your work presenting a negative image of the community you’re trying to represent, even if it’s not intentional. Much of dialect used in classic literature was meant to communicate something about the class, culture, and level of education of the characters.
In the modern artistic community and in publishing, a great deal of emphasis is placed on cultural sensitivity and authenticity. An innocent error in judgment during your writing process can not only be hurtful to others, but it could even damage your career.
3 Examples of distinctive dialects in literature
Some dialects are so iconic that they have, for better or for worse, become inextricably associated with the stories they represent. Here are a few excellent examples of famous characters with distinctive ways of speaking.
1. Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Mark Twain successfully uses a range of dialects and accents in his novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its successor, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Tom Sawyer, the young man at the centre of the novel, and his family speak in a typical Southwestern dialect that Twain calls the “Pike County” accent:
“Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and a body ain’t got no business doing wrong when he ain’t ignorant and knows better.”
There’s enough distinction to separate it from the way that most readers speak, but it’s still clear and easy to follow. Using this strong dialect in his writing lets Twain create a familiarity between the readers and his story, making Tom feel like someone who could jump right off the page and lead you into an adventure.
2. Hagrid in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series
J. K. Rowling uses a number of different accents and dialects in her Harry Potter series as the protagonists interact with other characters from other places like France, Belgium, and Ireland. One of the most memorable is Rubeus Hagrid, who speaks with a distinctive West Country dialect:
“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.’”
This dialect is written a little bit more phonetically, removing certain letters and adjusting the way certain words are written. This dialect is used to imply a cultural connection to the warm and humble personality of the West Country people.
3. Nac Mac Feegles in Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men
In The Wee Free Men, Terry Pratchett creates a fictional race of people loosely based on ancient Scottish tribes. Pratchett creates a fantastical dialect using strains of Scots Gaelic, Irish, and British English:
“Crivens! It’s a’ verra well sayin’ ‘find the hag,’ but what should we be lookin’ for, can ye tell me that? All these bigjobs look just the same tae me!”
The wonder of fantasy is that as a writer, you can take aspects of very real dialects and combine them with others, as well as add in your own pronunciations and vernacular (such as “bigjobs” to mean “humans”). However, even in the fantastic care must be taken to be mindful of cultural stereotypes and associations that your dialect might have.
3 ways to create believable dialect in your writing
Now that you know how dialect has been used in works of literature, let’s explore how to incorporate writing accents and word choice into stories of your own.
1. Be culturally sensitive
As you may imagine, in this day and age this sort of characterization needs to be approached cautiously and sensitively. It’s easy to overlook harmful cultural stereotypes when we’ve only been exposed to them through the literature of our childhoods. Many terms that were commonplace a hundred years ago are now considered wildly inappropriate in modern literature, and the opposite is also true: words that were considered offensive in decades gone by are now being reclaimed and empowered.
For this reason, it’s essential to base your use of dialect on real, contemporary people and, if possible, to reach out to those people and ask for their feedback on your characters’ language. Most people are willing to help if you communicate clearly and approach them with respect.
2. Listen to real people
Be careful not to base your dialect on what you think those people should sound like—especially if you’re not entirely sure where you got those ideas in the first place. Those ideas can easily be incorrect or out of date, encompassing a way of speaking that may have only existed a century ago or may never have truly existed at all.
The best way to recreate a true dialect in your writing is to immerse yourself in the culture of the speech. This might not be possible for everyone, however; if you’re not able to get on a plane and spend a year listening to the locals of your story’s setting, you can compile your day-to-day language through internet resources. Research the colloquial sayings of the people you’re trying to recreate and listen to audio or watch YouTube videos of the sort of sounds you want to get down on the page.
While it’s tempting to Google search “How to Speak Like a Real Australian” (and you’ll get anywhere from several dozen to several hundred results if you do this), your dialect will feel more true to life if you find ways to listen to people in their everyday lives. Things like cooking videos and fashion vlogs are excellent for this. Listen carefully to what sort of slang naturally comes through in their speech and how certain vowels and consonants may sound different from what you’re used to.
3. Be consistent
Once you have some ideas about the kinds of things to incorporate into your character’s language, make sure you use those central ideas consistently through your entire story. When writing your character’s dialect, always lean towards the idea that less is more; make fewer changes to your standard English than you think you need, and your readers will fill in the rest.
For instance, if your character is French and you know (from your audio and YouTube research!) that French people speaking English have trouble with their Hs, you can tell us that they’re French and then drop most of the Hs from their dialogue. “Something is wrong ‘ere” can go just as far, and a lot more effectively, than “Sumsing iz wrong ‘ere.”
Pick one or two verbal habits (in French, “bof” is about the equivalent to the English “meh”) and stick to them. Any more and you’ll overwhelm the reader. Try reading your words aloud to see if the dialogue flows naturally.
During your editing process, go back over your story and make sure you haven’t missed any of these verbal habits in your character’s dialogue. Your readers won’t notice when you’re doing it right—they’ll be too busy following the events of your plot—but they’ll always notice when you’re doing it wrong.
Dialect and diction bring diversity to your story
As you can see, character dialect and diction are some of a writer’s greatest hat tricks. Effective use of dialect can help your characters leap off the page and into the world of your reader. Mastering accents and dialect isn’t for the faint of heart, and it must be approached with the utmost respect for the world around you; when done correctly, however, it creates a vibrant story world and brings your characters to life.