Holy smokes, yiz talk funny
Dialect is one way to give your character life, but don't overdo it
Published: October 1, 2004
|Dialect has a purpose in fiction. If a writer uses it for the right people and in the right places.|
A form of diction, dialect reveals sociological information about your characters. The way your characters talk shows their ethnicity, their education, their professional background and even their political affiliation. Dialect, used the right way, is a tool writers can use to show, as compared to the dreaded telling, what makes their characters tick.
John O'Hara, whose 1934 novel Appointment in Samarra is No. 22 on Modern Library's 100 Best Novels list, was a master of dialect. He used it to convey a sense of place and people, particularly in the Gibbsville cycle of his writing, based on what he knew of his native Pennsylvania anthracite region. In contemporary fiction, Jan Karon, author of the bestselling Mitford series, uses local idiom to breathe life into her characters.
The keys to using dialect are to know when to use it, with which characters in your work to use it, and to not abuse it. Know your characters. Know everything about them so that when you are ready to give them a voice, they talk "what" they are and what they know.
For example, your character, Sarah Jane, is a 19-year-old woman who grew up in a small mining town in northern Appalachia. Her father is a welder, her mother a seamstress at the local shirt factory. When she graduated from high school with a C- average, she married Bobby Thorn, the 21-year-old mechanic who works at McDougal's Gas Station. Bobby's father died in a mine accident. His mom works with Sarah Jane's at the factory. Bobby and Sarah Jane live on Ash Street in an asbestos-shingled row house, circa 1880. Bobby was always smart in school. The only reason he did not go on to college was that Sarah Jane got pregnant when she was a senior graduating from Mineral Valley High. Bobby knows he can do better for himself and for Sarah. So late at night, when Sarah Jane sleeps, Bobby reads old discarded college texts. He has been recycling beer and soda cans, putting the profit in a secret bank account: his college fund. Let's look in on their breakfast conversation.
"Ain't no way yiz are goin ta be able to pay fer dat, Bobby."
"It'll be tough, I ain't denying that Sarah, honey."
"Ah come on, Bobby. Why da hell wouldcha want ta go to school now? Yiz got a good job at the station, and as soon as da Wal-Mart warehouse opens, I'll leave Nifty Burger an' go ta work dere."
"I can get a better job if I go to school. I can go nights. After work. I'll still do da station and go to school at night. Okay?"
"An what am I supposed ta be doin while you go off ta school? Ta get better. When yiz ain't here wit me? Huh? Changin diapers. Rooting unner da couch for little Bobby's binkie 'cause he keeps spittin it at me?"
"Sarah? I thought you'd be happy bout this. If I get a good enough job after school, you won't even have to work if you don't wanna."
The dialogue shows readers several things about the characters we are getting to know. Sarah Jane is obviously content to be a wife and laborer, and she is uneasy that her husband wants to grow. Insecure. Perhaps, she is even jealous. Meanwhile, all that late-night reading has inspired Bobby to want to improve his lot in life. Bobby is transforming, and it shows in the way he talks.
Just as important and often trickier than knowing with which characters and in what stories to use dialect is staying in character. You will trip and potentially lose readers who turn a page and for no reason find your Sarah Jane saying, "I am so pleased to see you, Bobby. How was school? Look at Little Bobby. He's playful tonight. He spit his 'fooler' at me three times."
Bobby must also stay in character. In this story, it will be normal for his mannerisms to change. It will be "in character" for him to use bigger words, longer sentences and less idiom as the story progresses. Unless, of course, the story twist is that Bobby quits school, throws away his used college books and turns to watching Monday night football with the guys down at Pug's Tavern.
Overuse of dialect is also a quick way to lose a reader. If a character's speech is too riddled with local lingo and misspellings, a reader may become bored, or even frustrated with trying to understand what the character is saying. This is a point-and-click society. A reader will "click off" a story that is slow to "download."
Finally, to write good dialect, be a good listener. Record conversations and replay them as you write. Did Sarah Jane say "for dat" or "fer that" or "fer dat"? Are there "one, two or three" or "one, two or tree" reasons your protagonist robbed the store? O'Hara's biographers say he had "an ear" for dialogue. Any writer can have such a talent because the key is listening to people talk.
Regional and certain thematic publications are good markets for fiction containing well-crafted stories using dialect. Consult The Writer's Handbook for a selection of these markets.
Poet and writer Christine M. Goldbeck, of Shenandoah, Pa., is the author of A Tribute to O'Hara and Other Stories. Her work also has appeared in Pennsylvania Magazine, The Irish Edition, Now&Then The Appalachian Magazine and The Writer.
--Posted Oct 1, 2004