Using Successful Dialect in Fiction

How, and why, dialect can be important in crafting fictitious characters.

Imagine walking into the office of the world’s most banal detective. His name is scrawled on the glass door in large black letters, and the smoke hanging in the hallway is almost as cloudy as the day outside. Inside, all sunlight is colored sepia brown, the same tint of a fading fedora hat. Walk in; the first thing you see is him, cigar in hand, puffing away while scanning the obituaries. He doesn’t look at you. Only the sound of the overhead fan keeps you company.

Without knowing, you have already crafted this character’s dialect in your mind.

Does he sound like Sherlock Holmes? Alfred Hitchcock? Perhaps Humphrey Bogart, or Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and Raymond Chandler all rolled into one?

Successful Dialect in Fiction

Either way, the one you have inherently chosen will sound distinct. He will use words and phrases that are generic to the English language, but in a new and unique fashion because of his style of pronunciation and the way he manipulates grammar and syntax.

This is dialect; it is an important, yet often rebuked, bit of character when it comes to crafting a believable being.

What is Dialect and How is it Used?

Creating a person out of nothing is very important in fiction. Anyone who has begun to write a story worth it’s merit knows that without a character, there is no story. So, respectively, these unspoken authors also know the plethora of questions that need to be asked in character creation. Who is he or she? What is his or her name? Where did he or she come from?

But equally important is: how does this person speak?

Refer back to the illustration above. If this imaginary detective spoke to you with stuttered syllables and strained sibilants, would you really trust this man with your case? If he spoke with the same confidence and brash nature of a 1950’s Film Noir, would you believe he is real? Essentially, if there is too much dialect, or too little, how easy would it be for you to suspend your disbelief in this character’s existence?

Now look at the examples given after the illustration. Sherlock Holmes’ dialect was methodical and precise, as conveyed by Dr. Watson; Alfred Hitchcock simply had a spin on atypical words alongside an accent; Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys’ dialect was just an authorial tone added to their syntax, a simple and mechanical way of deducing a crime; and Raymond Chandler had an unmistakable stylistic dialect added to his primary protagonists’ speech. Each one was a simple change to the written spoken language, and yet each character felt unique and without comparison in the times in which they were written.

This is why Gene Roddenberry, in crafting the logical Vulcan species in Star Trek, attempted to have their language devoid of contractions. Though minor televised slips would occur, it is still rare to hear Spock saying “I won’t.” He would, instead, say: “I will not,” in a more formal, straightforward manner. The common human reaction to language is to shorten our words. To have a being that never shortens his or her language seems almost alien to us. It is the perfect twist of dialect for such a character. Short, simple, and concise.

It is the way a character speaks, how he or she uses the language at his or her fingertips. To use dialect that is too brash and ridiculous will cause the reader to lose clarity in the character, as well as refuse to suspend disbelief in the idea that this person could actually exist. However, being used properly, with subtlety and grace, means to give another layer to a character that the reader can willingly follow to the last page.

Learning English All Over Again

Yet, dialect is often denied in the pages of writing books. It is considered second-hand, and sometimes useless in this day and age. Authors of these books would prefer you to use perfect dialog, or dialogue -as it is spelled within the United Kingdom- in crafting the person. Why is this?

The rule of thumb is that before using dialect, one must learn the rules of the language before attempting to manipulate it. The English language is plentiful. Many words, with many different permutations abound, waiting to be used. If you do not know the rules, you cannot know how to manipulate them in such a concise and simple manner. If ignored, your attempt at dialect would more likely be attributed to seeming contrived or out of place.

In the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain took the English language and twisted it into a form of pseudo-poetics on the page. But then look at the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, written years earlier. It has an authorial voice that is in command of the language, one that is stiff and and fitting with a typical form, yet still poetic. Twain had to be in command of the written and spoken word before crafting Huckleberry Finn. To know how that character spoke, he had to know how to twist the language in such a way that it was still conveying the story, but also unique to Huckleberry Finn’s character.

The Spoken Word

For characters that speak with a unique dialect, you must first learn their accent. It may be anything: a simple twang added to relatively boring words, or they may shorten each and every word until verbal phonetics is the only was you can discern meaning. Either way, you must open your ears as well, so that you can understand the way they speak. Readers will hear this character’s voice in their head, so you must keep this in mind at all times as well.

Don’t just learn English, learn the way the character would use English. Once that is understood, then you can prepare to utilize dialect to its fullest potential.