I’ve spoken (or written, more accurately) on dialect before, but I wanted to talk about it more in depth, and discuss its finer points. Unless you’re a judicious reader, you’re probably wondering why I chose the above pic.
It was for this reason: Tolkien was a genius at everything he did. (Not that that proves my point…we’re getting there) One of his most interesting uses of well-known writing processes was the way he used dialogue. Many characters in his story (i.e., the Hobbits) speak in a more contemporary way (that is, in HIS time). But some, like Gandalf and Aragorn, speak in a more archaic way.
Point number one: It’s okay to switch dialects between characters. Remember, the Hobbits are sheltered, fat, and lazy. This is much like pre-war England and modern America. As a cause of this, they are jovial and good-natured. Naturally, their speech will be much more pleasant and self-interested.
But Strider is a ranger from the North. In addition, he’s a man of the West, a Dunedian. His speech can be either foul or fair, and he can be coarse and refined. So his dialogue is subject to change. There are certainly times when he seems very refined as the king of Gondor, and there are times when he is really rough (Poor Butterbur…).
So if one of your characters develops an irregular accent or dialect, know that this isn’t necessarily bad. Your character may be culturally different, personally different, or otherwise in any other way different from the rest, and that’s why they’ll speak differently.
On that note, I’d like to express the need for individuality in speech among your characters. Since most of what we know about a character is their dialogue, we start to construct a mental image of the character based on what they say. If you make everyone sound the same, they will all look the same to the reader.
Therefore, try to spice up your reader’s perception of your characters with unique language. It doesn’t have to be necessarily like assigned roles, but let each character fall into a way of speaking naturally. This person is a government official? Maybe a fluty, British-type voice with more sophisticated rhetoric. A mysterious traveler? Probably a deeper voice, with fewer, more simple words to say.
Of course, then there’s the classic problem of “contemporary language or no”? First, one thing needs to be made clear: you can write literally whatever you want. With Kindle Direct Publishing, you can pretty much publish anything too. So the short answer is: go on ahead and write whatever dialect you want, contemporary or no.
The longer answer is for those who are serious. (If you made it this far, you’re pretty much serious, so heck) Of course, you can write whatever you want, but is contemporary appropriate? In almost all circumstances, I’d say yes. The great writers of old (even Shakespeare) wrote in the language of their time. Lewis did, Nesbit did, and so did many others. In almost all cases, “contemporary” dialect is fine. This is true, no matter if you’re writing Contemporary Realistic Fiction, Sci-fi, Fantasy, or anything.
Notice I said “almost all cases”. I bet you’re wondering what the exception is. It’s this: If you have a character who seems like they wouldn’t use a more modern way of speaking, trust your gut. It doesn’t matter if they stand out (in fact, that’s a good thing). They need to sound natural, and if contemporary-ese sounds unnatural, don’t do it.
This is a good rule of thumb: Always make your characters sound natural and original. If you can manage to make all of your characters sound like that in their speech, then you’ve succeeded.
Good luck, and happy writing!
One thought on “The Finer Points of Dialect”
Ha. My characters always sound the same, which means I have a lot of work to do. Maybe I’m not even making them interesting in the first place. Great piece about dialect though. Thanks for sharing!
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