On Dialogue and Characterization (Or Specifically, Slang and Dialect Use)

Here we are again with another post on Dialogue. We’ve tackled topics such as using comma splices in dialogue, using plain “said“, and speaker attribution. This post talks about characterization, and while it seems like a no-brainer, I’d like to go ahead and discuss it anyway. =)

Characterization is defined as the process of conveying information about characters in narrative or dramatic works of art or everyday conversation. (Wikipedia)

So. How do we use characterization in dialogue?

The simple answer would be this: We write dialogue like the way our characters talk. For instance, we can’t have a homeless man speak like the CEO of some big company. I’m pretty sure Mr. Hobo would not use words like “extrapolate” or “ramifications” in his conversations with the Taco vendor.

But you already know that, right? Pfft, you say. This is nothing. Well, I say, good to know we’re in the same page here.

Now, let’s take another look at this from another angle. Consider this passage:

    “Hang the boy, can’t I never learn anything? Ain’t he played me tricks enough like that for me to be looking out for him by this time? But old fools is the biggest fools there is. Can’t learn an old dog new tricks, as the saying is. But my goodness, he never plays them alike, two days, and how is a body to know what’s coming? He ‘pears to know just how long he can torment me before I get my dander up, and he knows if he can make out to put me off for a minute or make me laugh, it’s all down again and I can’t hit him a lick. I ain’t doing my duty by that boy, and that’s the Lord’s truth, goodness knows. Spare the rod and spile the child, as the Good Book says...”

(Aunt Polly in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Slang and Dialect. Do we really need to utilize slang and dialect so we can SHOW what kind of a person our character is?

There’s a great article by Todd Eastman found here on using slang and accents when writing fictional dialogue. He pointed out the following things to look for:

1. Be careful not to suggest racism. Be aware when you are using stereotypes.
2. If you’re going to use regional speech patterns and accents, do it accurately and consistently.
3. When done correctly, using speech patterns and accents can be effective in fleshing out your character’s voice.
4. Make it sound authentic. Tip: Listen to a speaker who comes from whatever background it is you’re studying.
5. Consider terminology (or jargon) and use them appropriately.

I have a character in my WIP who talks in a folksy way. It’s who she is and you can tell a lot (characterization) just by her dialogue. I’ve gotten feedback–both positive and negative–on this: One critiquer didn’t care for this character’s dialogue (and the character herself). She said my folksy lady was annoying and her conversations tiring. In my mind, I was thinking BINGO! I got it right! Because this woman IS indeed annoying–she likes to gossip, she goes off on tangents, and she is a talker. Mind you, she’s only a minor character so I didn’t feel the need to give her a make-over just because she annoyed one reader.

Another critiquer actually loved my annoying folksy lady. She told me she loves how my characters don’t sound all alike. Their dialogue and conversations convey their individual voices. As you can see, there are differing opinions on this topic.

I’m pretty sure the days of Mark Twain’s dialogue and writing dialect the way they sound (like spile and ‘pear, for instance) are long gone. I know we had a discussion about this over at the old Agent Query Connect site, and there was a vehement, and quite unanimous vote on scratching slang and dialect altogether. Personally, I don’t mind it when there’s a little bit mixed in. When not overdone, or overused, it does give us readers a sense of a character’s personality even when we’re not told what or who they are.

What do you think? What’s your take on this? Or is it so faux pas you’re turning your nose up at me for even asking such a ridiculous question? 😉

By the way, here’s an example of my annoying folksy lady’s dialogue:

“You folks look like you came from the big city. Are you a kin of the Reverend? Nah, you can’t be. All his family got them big noses. You girls are pretty as lilies. My name’s Martha, by the way. But everyone calls me Mrs. Macey. You want to hear about the specials?” 

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16 thoughts on “On Dialogue and Characterization (Or Specifically, Slang and Dialect Use)

  1. I LOVE DIALECT. I never saw that AQ debate, but mark me down on the opposite column. Being able to hear a character is vital for me. Not just in word choice. If a dude says 'get' like 'git,' I'd jolly well like to hear that….oh god, I just said 'jolly well.' Yep, it's past my bedtime. (<—shocker!)This could be because of my intense fondness for the Redwall series (yay talking animals!). It was (is?) my childhood, and Brian Jacques made every animal species speak with a very distinct dialect. Moles had a deep, earthy feel to them; a common phrase was "burr aye" instead of "yes." Hares sounded British, in my mind. They always used "wot wot" as a random exclamatory and "bally well" as in "She bally well not do that!" As for villains, there were lots of types of vermin, but foxes were usually well-spoken, while rats always sneered their speech, and that came across in the spelling.^As you can tell from this mini-rant, I retained Jacques' stylistic choices very well. I'm a huge fan of dialect. It just brings a piece to life for me, and I've never seen it used so strongly that it brought me out of the story.Wow, this is an absurdly long comment. Stopping here. Going to bed! Awesome post as usual, Cherie!

  2. One thing I've learned about using dialect–they make a character sound uneducated since nothing is ever enunciated correctly. Of course, when they do manage to do something smart, they appear shrewd because they've been underestimated. But… I can never seem to make them seem cunning.Go figure.

  3. I don't mind a little dialect mixed in–and I do mean little, but I can't handle a lot of it. I actually just read a book where the main character had, what I guess would be considered a southern accent, and it drove me nuts!! Because it was told in first person, even the narrative parts were in this dialect (for example, every word ending in "tion" was written "shun"). The same thing with the "Sookie Stackhouse" books (what "True Blood" is based on). Even though Sookie prides herself on being a smart woman, she comes across as ignorant (to me) based on the way she talks and the narration. Wow, good topic, Cherie. This is sure to get some mixed reactions ;o)

  4. This is a great topic! I love dialect within LIMITS. It's hard to do it right. (It also makes the book hard to read aloud.) An entire book in the accent is just too much for me, unless it's brilliantly done (Hello, The Color Purple, yep I read you all the way through and cried like a baby.)My solution in my short story was to have the actual dialogue be in the local lingo, but to have the narration be use the cadence of the accents but not actually spell the words differently. Once you have a few moments of speech in your dialect, it's implied and a lot of the time the reader will read the text with the accent even if it's not written differently. If that makes any sense.

  5. I think dialect makes a story and a character feel much more authentic, as long as it's not overdone. If you had written your example at the bottom as less folksy, I probably would have gotten a completely different impression of Martha.

  6. I like some dialect. People do it with British characters all the time and other Europeans as well.It sounds snobbish without meaning to be, but the southern accent does sound uneducated, even if the people using it are uber-smart. Why is that?

  7. The Help is a great example of dialect used well. What I loved about it was the author's creative use of word choice rather than indiscriminate use of apostrophes (*cough* Hagrid *cough*). The Color Purple (as someone mentioned earlier) is another book I think of immediately when someone starts talking good use of dialect in prose. That being said, it is vitally important to do it well or not at all. I can't think of many other writing devices that so quickly expose weaknesses in writing. You have to really get the sound of it in your ear and always treat the dialect with great care and respect while writing it.

  8. Is there any way you could put out one of these dialogue blog postings on a daily basis? 🙂 All kidding aside, I read this post, then went back and read the ones on dialogue I had missed that you'd written previously. Every single post has helped me with my writing. Thank you!

  9. Great post! There's a fine line between dialogue that deftly reflects regionalism or a certain culture or age, and dialect that stops the reader. You can do it with vocabulary, and the way you cast sentences, rather than apostrophes and weird phonetic spellings.

  10. I think dialogue, and dialect, are wonderful ways to distinguish characters. One does have to be very very careful, and most specifically, accurate, when using real world dialects. Since I work in SF/F, though, I use dialects all the time. My preference is this: I don't typically use alternate spellings for alternate pronunciation – maybe because my characters aren't usually speaking English anyway. Instead of using phonetic spellings, I tend to alter the meter (rhythm) of the dialogue to suggest dialect. As an example, here are a pair of lines from two different servants (one from a regional city, the other from the capital) responding to the news that their master is getting better after an illness: 1. Oh, young Master, sir, please tell us now you've not gone deaf or blind, and ease us all our worry? 2. We couldn't be more pleased, young Master. I saw a comment above about the challenge of making a dialect-using character seem intelligent – the choice of dialect will definitely have value judgments associated with it. Similarities to high-status or privileged English dialects will tend to evoke the same feel in a story; similarities to folksy dialects will evoke the judgments associated with those in our world. Fun to play with, definitely. Terrific post!

  11. Great responses, everyone!More food for thought, and this corresponds with some of your comments:From Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne and King, pp. 110-111):So how do you get a character's geographical or educational or social background across? The best way is through WORD CHOICE, CADENCE, and GRAMMAR…. [Consider this example] from Catherine Cottle's The Price of Milk and Honey:'"I didn't stay up to fight," she said. "But I got to find out what it is keeping us here. What it is keeping my children from being somebody.""They already be somebody. They born somebodies."'(p. 112) Explanations, -ly adverbs, oddball verbs of speech, trick spellings–these can't really help your dialogue because they don't really change the dialogue. They take the place of good dialogue rather than help create it. [end of quote]

  12. In one (short) paragraph I already have a picture of Mrs. Macy in my head. You did your job as a writer by giving her a voice that's as unique as she is. I write YA. Teenagers speak differently than adults. So I write them that way. Folks like Mrs. Macy have done a lot of living–probably hard living, and that needs to come through when she speaks. I say, BRAVA!!

  13. I've come across the art & failure of dialect a lot in RP. Personally I adore it if it's done well. It gives the character depth and offers another level of the character.However if done poorly, it can be a huge turn off. Instead of enhancing a scene it can actually become quite distracting. I think you've found a solid formula for dialect.

  14. Well said, everyone! My, you guys are all smarty-pants (but I already knew that *grin*). I love having this discussion and getting to see your opinions. I definitely see that dialect is acceptable as long as it's done properly. Thank you for adding your thoughts to this topic. They're invaluable. I love you guys!

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