Crumpled-Paper

Most Common Writing Mistakes: The Do’s and Don’ts of Dialect

Who doesn’t love a good accent? British, Indian, French, Spanish, Irish, Australian, South African, and Japanese actors, among many others, all bring added spice to their roles on the American big screen. And I suspect the same holds true in reverse (when I visited Australia several years ago, someone told me she loved my accent, which was a total mindbender for me). Exotic settings and unusual characters are one of a writer’s most enjoyable opportunities in fiction—and sometimes these opportunities will allow our characters to speak in foreign languages, dialects, or accents.

Dialect Don’ts

So far, all is cool. But, too often, writers get carried with their accents. Because we hear our leading man’s Scottish burr so clearly in our own heads (and because it makes him nth times more awesome), we’re determined to share that experience with our readers. So we start manipulating our character’s dialogue to reflect his accent. (After all, everybody knows that properly spelled dialogue must always be read with a plain-vanilla American* voice).The result might look something like this:

The Scotsman stomped into the room and smacked his claymore onto the table. “Ah dinnae ahsk fer mae dinnah tae be tan minuts laht, nae did I, mae wicket lahssie?”

The French maid turned away from the pot of bouillabaisse bubbling on the stove. “I do not zink you are funeee, monsieur. You blundaringg scoundrelles are all ze zame! No dinnar for you after zis!”

This dialogue exchange might communicate the nationalities of the speakers (or not: would you really be able to decipher the characters’ accents if I hadn’t told you where they were from?), but it also creates plenty of problems, including:

Unintelligibility.

Were you able to read that dialogue at a glance, or did you have to stop and sound out each word? Even then, you might have been left guessing a time or two. When we interrupt our readers’ experience of our story and force them to think about the way the words are put together, we’re just asking for their suspension of disbelief bubble to pop.

Ridiculousness.

Do these characters come across as fascinating—or just cartoonish? By forcing readers’ attention onto the pronunciation rather than the words themselves, we’re robbing our characters of their personal power. Is it the way they say their words that makes them great characters—or is it the words themselves?

Unreality.

Should you happen to be intimately acquainted with Scottish or French speakers, I’m going to guess you probably snorted your coffee as you rightfully determined that my knowledge of these accents only stretches as far as my film-going acquaintance with Gerard Butler and Marion Cotillard. You can’t fake mastery of a dialect on paper anymore than you can in real life.

Distraction.

All of the above contribute to a general sense of reader distraction. If readers are too busy trying to decipher your dialogue, laughing at your characters’ silly speeches, or rolling their eyes at your less-than-perfect grasp of the dialect, they’re not going to be thinking about how awesome your story is.

Dialect Do’s

If you can’t use phonetic spellings to indicate a character’s accent or dialect, then what can you do?

Remember less is more.

Readers are smart. They don’t need much encouragement to get the idea that your character talks like Jackie Chan or Helen Mirren. Sometimes just mentioning your character’s nationality will be enough to help readers hear the proper accent when reading your dialogue.

Rely on the rhythm of the language.

An accent is just as much about interesting rhythms and phrases as it is the actual tilt it brings to the words themselves. Let your character’s interesting word choices or incorrect sentence constructions carry the burden of conveying the foreignness of his speech.

Use the occasional phonetic misspelling.

One or two phonetic misspellings aren’t likely to trip readers up. But go sparingly. You’re not going to want to get much more radical than leavin’ off a “g” here and there.

Don’t micro-manage.

The reason some authors are so adamantly attached to the idea of presenting dialect syllable by syllable is that they love their character and they love that their character speaks with an accent and they want readers to love that character just as much for just the same reasons. But—and trust me on this—if you’ve done your job right, readers will love your character just as much with or without the accent. In fact, if the accent is done poorly, they’ll definitely love him much more without it.

Dialect Done Right

Let’s take another look at our original dialogue example—but without all the undue attention on the speakers’ accents:

The Scotsman stomped into the room and smacked his claymore onto the table. “I did not ask for my dinner to be ten minutes late, now did I, my wicked lassie?

The French maid turned away from the pot of bouillabaisse bubbling on the stove. “I do not think you are funny, monsieur. You blundering scoundrels are all the same! No dinner for you after this!”

Now wasn’t that much easier to read? Didn’t the characters come across more clearly? And didn’t you still get the gist that the characters were foreign (both because the narrative told you they were and because each line of dialogue included a dialect-specific word)? Trust your characters to be lovable without affectations, and trust your readers to be smart enough to hear the accents with only a few prompts.*Or whatever the writer’s native tongue may be.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever written a character who has an accent or speaks a dialect?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. This isn’t as easy as it seems. One of my characters native language was Spanish, and I had to have her speak some basic English.

    My editor said I successfully pulled off the “English learner” mistakes usually made by Spanish speakers, in the first chapters but in the latter chapters the character came off as stupid-not my intent.

    I wasn’t trusting “my readers to be smart enough,” as you stated. I had to go back and ease up on her dialogue.

  2. This can be a difficult thing to handle, so I’m grateful for the tips.

  3. I like to pepper my stories with foreigners. ;) One of my characters has a dad who is Irish, and a boyfriend who thinks of himself as Texan (so he’s always dropping the ‘G’ on words–especially darlin’.) Recently, I introduced a character in a story who is Russian.

    For me, when I introduce a character with a dialect, I like to try to get the rhythm of how they speak more than anything else–especially pet phrases for the person, and pepper it with slang from the region (if it’s appropriate.) A lot of non-English speakers don’t get our contractions, so, like with my Russian ME character, I make darn sure they don’t use contractions.

    Having native-sounding names also helps me reinforce the idea that my characters are not from around here. ;)

  4. @Alvarado: It’s definitely handy to get a beta reader who understands the language/dialect to run over your dialogue. Nothing beats an expert.

    @L.G.: Yes, it can be tough. Most of us are lucky just to master our own dialect!

    @Liberty: One trick I like to use is to pick an actor/character with the same accent and try to filter my own character’s dialogue through that person’s voice. Helps me hear the rhythms that much better.

  5. This is one of the things I don’t like about Steinbeck. Even though I was born and raised in the south, I can scarcely comprehend the type of dialect used in “The Grapes of Wrath.” In my opinion it took away from the effect rather than add, and in the end I was simply confused and exhausted. Therefore I consider it far more efficient to give a simple description, with maybe a few little key words or mispellings. But it certainly doesn’t need to be constant.

  6. For all the many reasons I dislike Faulkner, dialect was one of the things he excelled at. Haven’t read Steinbeck yet, so I can’t compare.

  7. OMG, this post comes so handy for me! Thank you! My problem is that I´m not using real dialects because I´m not writing about a real world, but anyway, as you say, probably mentioning the accent is way better than spelling it out. At least, in ocasions :D
    Hugs,
    M.

  8. In my speculative fiction, I write a lot of made-up dialects as well. The freedom to invent is always fun, but I do find it helpful to base even imaginary languages on real-life ones.

  9. Great minds think alike. It´s exactly what I´m doing ;)

  10. Anonymous says:

    Thank you, this possibly saved my neck. Mine is a civil war novel, so I have Appalachian characters, slaves and freed slaves, soldiers and others from the deep south, and some quadroons and octoroons from New Orleans. Some of the dialogue was coming out as very forced, as I was overdoing it. This definitely helps.

  11. @Anonymous: Glad it was useful to you! Research is, of course, paramount. But, when in doubt, you’re almost always going to be better off erring on the side of too little dialect rather than too much.

  12. It may be a classic, but this was exactly my biggest problem with “Rob Roy” by Sir Walter Scott. It was quite a slog through the word-mud to finish it. Myself, aside from using such things as “ya” instead of “you”, or leaving off the “g” for my less refined characters, I avoid phonetically writing accents. Instead, I have little snippets of my made-up languages for each one make an appearance now and then to let you ‘hear’ their mother tongue. That way, perhaps the reader can imagine how they speak when I am not forcing English on them.

  13. A character in my newest WIP has a slight Scottish accent, and I think I’ll keep dialect to a minimum with her. After all, I don’t want it to read like one of those tongue-in-cheek phonetic interpretations of Merida’s dialogue in Brave. I think that sort of thing can work, in moderation. I remember a character in Wuthering Heights whose dialogue was practically indecipherable, but as he only had a minor comic role, it wasn’t a huge distraction.

  14. @Abby: It’s always valuable to pay attention to our own instincts as readers. If we hate something another author is doing, we’d be well advised to avoid inflicting that same technique on our own readers.

    @Leah: Yes, Wuthering Heights is a good example. The thing about spelled-out dialects is that, unless the reader actually has an ear for the intended dialect, he could still end up pronouncing it all wrong anyway.

  15. I gave up on one book by a popular author because it was very heavy on southern dialect, and I spent too much time and energy trying to figure out what the characters were saying.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Loved this! My first story was an “ignorance is bliss” experience, and I’m surprised that I handled this aspect of its telling in the manner you suggested… because I had no idea what I was doing! I have read stories in which this has been overdone, and it proved to be a distraction. My current work-in-progress is set in 1812-1814 New Orleans, a city that was (and still is) a melting pot of cultures. I have French, Irish, Spanish, British, and American characters speaking in my head. It really is a wonderful part of writing, as it helps me to know the characters on a deeper level, to see them in my mind. I totally agree that stating a character’s nationality, along with using one or two dialect words in their speaking, will ensure the reader’s ability to “hear” the intended accents. As someone who reads a lot, too, I know this works for me.

  17. I feel like a little bit goes a long way when it comes to accents and dialect.

  18. Readers aren’t lazy, but they also don’t want to have to do more than their share of the work. If we make them sweat too much, they’re likely to leave us for something easier – like giving the dog a bath.

  19. @Anonymous: Giving characters an accent or dialect can be a great way to help us individualize their voices. Of course, it can also be a crutch, if taken too far. But happy mediums give us and our readers the best of both worlds.

    @Laurie: Your readers will thank you for that mindset. ;)

  20. I agree with you, Katie: with accents, less is definitely more. The important thing IMHO is the personality of the character. If the character is a humorous one, you can play a bit with ‘incorrect’ grammar to good effect. Similarly, when the character is sinister.It adds to their ‘character’!
    In my current WIP, I have a free-wheeling Aussie (the kind who’d love your accent, Katie), so I throw in the occasional Australian word (like ‘crook’ for ‘sick/ill’) but otherwise I just concentrate on bringing out his personality.
    BTW, your Scottish accent source, Gerard Butler is a good-looking guy, but as a Scots-speaking mentor I’d pick Ewan McGregor (who, I’m told, is also quite cute).

  21. You raise a good point about treading carefully with incorrect grammar. Even if a character might really talk that way, we have to be careful that he doesn’t come across as less intelligent that we intend him to be.

  22. Great post! I must share this. Very helpful for me, as I usually have many different nationalities in my stories. In my current WIP, most of the main characters are Finnish, but they all speak English to the American character (who, naturally, is not bilingual. :-P ) I mostly concentrate on grammar and syntax mistakes with the characters who are less fluent in English, but I’ve received some feedback from my critique group that I might still be overdoing in certain places. The Finnish accent would be very difficult to write phonetically, since it’s rather mild. I toss in the occasional Finnish word or phrase, and that (combined with the names) hopefully reminds the reader where they’re from.

  23. One of my characters in a story set in Montreal, New York, and Philly during the American Revolution started out as a street urchin with questionable command of the English language. I conveyed this by flavoring her language with the occasional incorrect syntax and by her hesitation when she could not remember the correct word. Because she was not the protagonist, I was able to filter her attempts to speak English through the point-of-view of a more educated character, who handily spoke her native French. I write in deep third, so the occasional scene in her POV conveyed that she was more educated than she let on. Her speech when they were “speaking French” with each other was obviously much more sophisticated than when she tried to speak English.

  24. Except in the case of two Japanese characters (a Tokyo punk fashionista and a Yakuza assassin) who “murder” the English language every time they speak, I’ve completely given up on spelled-out dialect. I distinguish English dialects mostly through the slightly differing vocabulary (Northern and Southern US, English, Irish, Australian, and black American; among the English characters, mainly Liverpool and East London) and in certain cases slightly differing grammar. I have one Japanese character who starts out with a shaky command of English, but since she gets help from a Canadian friend and another Japanese girl, I’ll have to show her improvement as the story goes on, until she’s all but fluent by the middle of the story. Laurie Evans has a point.

    As for translated dialogue: I’m seriously considering using em dashes (the French style James Joyce used) instead of the double quotes I use for spoken English dialogue when I have characters speak in a language other than English.

  25. @Grace: Often, we’re better off manipulating characters a little bit to allow them to speak mostly English. I’m currently dealing with a foreign-speaking character who wouldn’t necessarily have any reason to understand English. But for the sake of the story, I’ve allowed him to be nearly fluent.

    @Jeriann: And you’ve just brought up the flip-side of the coin to what I said above to Grace. If it simply doesn’t make sense for one character to speak English, then we can often do a workaround by making another character understand the foreign language.

    @Dennis: The use of the em dash to indicate foreign language – or, sometimes, the English translation that follows a line of foreign dialogue – works just fine.

  26. I speak French, English, Japanese and Spanish and nothing distracts me more in a movie or book when one of those languages’ accent is done wrong. I also think that by trying too hard, the author ends up sounding patronizing, or worst, racist.

  27. Yes, we can’t forget that some of our readers will undoubtedly be familiar with the dialect we’re faking – and they’ll know instantly that we didn’t do our research.

  28. Regarding Dennis Jernberg’s comment about using em dashes: I’ve been using brackets (can’t decide between or [dialogue] ) to indicate that the characters are speaking a different language.

    In my WIP, I use the bracketed speech only in scenes that are from the POV of the Finnish characters, and I use it when they are speaking English. When the English-speaking American is doing the POV for that scene, there are no brackets because he can’t switch between languages. I use it not so much to indicate that the character is speaking English, but rather to indicate that the character is speaking a language besides their own native one. Is this an acceptable practice?

  29. This is a good tip. I would like to add that another reason to use phonetic dialect sparingly is that in this modern world with ebooks, and some blind people reading those ebooks with speech synthesizers, going overboard with phonetic dialect spellings will make the dialogue sound garbled because most synthesizers will not read it correctly, turning your cleverly crafted dialect into an annoyance.

  30. In my first WIP I had an old Swedish guy with a heavy accent (in Minnesota) and thought I was minimizing the phonetics in his accent, but after getting feedback from a critique group I toned it down by about 75%. That seemed to work pretty well and earned me much better feedback. I only use a few Ds for THs (dat vs. that) and concentrated more on grammar differences than phonetic spellings.

  31. @Grace: I’m actually not sure what’s considered “acceptable,” but I know I’ve seen the em dash technique used in published books. Don’t think I’ve ever seen brackets used that way.

    @Paul: Good point! I always have my Kindle read aloud to me when I’m proofreading. She messes up even acceptable English spellings sometimes.

    @chitrader: Choosing just one phonetic anomaly and sticking with it is a great approach. It gives your character a verbal idiosyncrasy without making everything he says sound ridiculous.

  32. I did that with the current novel I am working on. I got so confused after reading it back to myself I knew I had to cut it.

  33. That’s always a bad sign! :p

  34. I am SO GLAD you all discussed this issue. This is another problem I have been struggling with because I am writing from a world that is very similar to our own, but not exactly like it. My antagonist speaks in a lower-class dialect than that of my protagonist and I am afraid of making him sound ridiculous. I’m still playing with how I might convey their different regions and classes in a simple sentence and a few spelling changes, rather than a long paragraph. Less is more, but figuring out what LESS to use is a struggle. Thanks again, K.M!

  35. Give yourself permission to play around with it. I’ve been working with a non-native speaker in my WIP. Having a lot of fun trying to find just the right balance of “wrongness” to illustrate her accent.

  36. Janey Egerton says:

    Thank you, Katie, nice examples! Being half-Scottish I strongly advise against the way your first example handled the dialect. It really winds me up that most non-British people seem to think that all Scots sound like pirates ;-)

    If I may chime in with my personal opinion, here’s my advice on the matter:

    1. Don’t make your characters foreign if they don’t need to be. Having a character (especially major ones with lots of “screen time” and dialogue) be foreign should always serve a purpose.

    2. If your dialect-speaking character is a native speaker of English, avoid too much dialect-specific spelling. As stated above more than once, that mostly distracts, and, if the reader is not acquainted with what the dialect is supposed to sound like, even the best spelling won’t help at all. I have read a few books written entirely in dialect (special editions of classic novels entirely in Bavarian German, Saxony German, Low Saxon, Alemannic, and various others) and found out that it requires a lot of concentration even if you know quite well what the dialects sound like. The only one I really enjoyed was my home dialect (Alemannic). The others were mostly hard work.

    3. If your character is a non-native speaker of English, then try to speak as much as possible with real people who have the same nationality as your character and try to pick up their grammatical inaccuracies. For example, most Germans can’t really grasp the difference between present tense and present continuous as the latter doesn’t exist in German. Also, the present tense is very dominant in the German language so you may notice that many Germans (even experienced speakers of English) say thinks like, “I work in this company since ten years,” or, “I buy a house in one year,” or, “I am believing you are right.” Italian has a heavy use of articles, so Italians say things like, “She’s wearing the gloves and the hat,” (but not referring to a particular pair of gloves and a particular hat) or, “My parents’ house is very close to the Switzerland.” Conversely, Slavic languages tend to not use many articles, so you may hear Polish people say things like, “On Saturday I went to nice party,” or, “I’m so hungry; I need to buy sandwich.” You can pick up many of these things by listening closely to how real people talk. Using these features with subtlety can give you a great effect, without the use of misspelling that may make your foreign character sound stupid or illiterate.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree with the value of listening to how real people talk. With people who aren’t native speakers, it can be both helpful (and fascinating) to study the mother language. Very helpful in identifying common English mistakes, as you’ve pointed out here.

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