We’re writers, and we all love a good character.
You know, a character who’s something of a “character.” And we all know that one of the clearest, simplest, and most effective ways to illuminate a tasty character is by using dialect in dialogue. Good use of dialect lets our readers “hear” the same character voice that we, as authors, hear inside our heads.
But how much is too much?
This topic sparked a heated discussion during a Critique meeting earlier this year. One of our most talented writers, Dorothy Abrams, showed us several pages from her novel-in-progress. Her setting was 18th-Century Scotland. Her key characters spoke in a nigh onto incomprehensible brogue and used unfamiliar words dredged from that time and place.
Some of us loved what Dorothy had done. Others among us stumbled through the dialogue and advised her to tone it down for better readability. Aye, therr was much wailin’ an’ gnashin’ o’ teeth, I tell yeh.
Did that last sentence bring your eyes to a screeching halt?
Yup, that’s the problem that arises when you try to instill authentic dialect into your dialogue. I’m not saying it can’t be done. Sci-Fi and Fantasy genre writers often draw their readers into alternative worlds partly by using invented dialogue conventions. In those cases, once you’re in, you’re in, and your brain does the necessary translating on the fly.
For mainstream fiction, though, most writers would agree on a reasonable compromise for including dialect.
Here are 5 techniques you can use to keep your characters’ distinctive voices readable:
1. Translate, using italics
“Ah’d nee lak teh see ‘at, laddie,” the wary Scot ventured. I’d not like to see that.
This works kind of like Vicodin: It’s great in small doses, but over time the side effects outweigh its value. Your readers will learn to skim past the quoted dialogue and read the italicized translations instead; but this type of approach will inherently hinder your pace.
2. The reverse of #1: Add dialect in italics
When Bonatti said, “I don’t ever want to see you again, Krepkey,” it came out dough nevvah wanna seeyuh.
I like this method, but I may be in the minority among critics. When you use this technique, you can only do so sparingly, in key situations. To make that character’s voice stick in your reader’s mind, you have to do it early and choose your “translated” words or phrase carefully. But it works.
3. Use dialect only in certain key words or phrases
“I dint mean to offend you, Mr. Tartaglia, I swear.” I could barely breath, I was so scared.
He stared at me for a minute with coal-black eyes, and finally smiled. “Fuhgeddaboudit, kid.”
It’s easy to roll right through that first instance, “dint,” partly because the word is close enough to its correct spelling to effectively fool the eye.
The second one, familiar to anyone who watches The Sopranos, is indeed a stumbler — but’s it’s fun to say and brings a smile to the reader. That one word is enough to define everything else Tartaglia says without using any additional dialect. I like this method, and often see it used by top writers.
4. Use other-character observations for effect
“You may come in, Lieutenant, but I have only a minute to spare before I must leave for a meeting,” Meltzkamp said.
He pronounced my title Lute-Nant, but otherwise the old Kraut’s English was flawless. I stepped inside.
I do like this approach, especially for first-person POV stories. Observations like this one help grow both characters, since the protagonist’s reflections say as much about him as they do about the speaker he’s listening to. Notice, too, the somewhat stilted phrasing used by Meltzkamp, despite his “flawless English.” All the words are spelled correctly, but the sentence still feels foreign.
5. Insert foreign words or phrases in italics, untranslated
The waiter approached us stiffly. “Bonjour, monsieur et madame, welcome to Chez Jacques.” We could barely see his eyes behind his uplifted nose. I couldn’t read more than a word or two on the linen menu.
Sometimes, this is your most effective approach. My 17-year-old son, fairly fluent in French, showed me how to use Google Translate to get both spelling and phrasing correct. (I was clueless.) It helps if the words or phrases you use are reasonably easy for your readers to recognize.
I read a novel earlier this year, in which the villain routinely muttered to himself in French. The author simply included these sentences intact and untranslated. Some I could reason-out, and others I had to ignore or look up. While the technique was effective for depth of character, I’m sure I tripped over some of the phrases.
In the final edit, only you as Author can decide what works best for your story.
Keep an open mind to feedback from your editor(s) and beta readers, but you’ll have to make the final call. This is one situation where the “read it aloud” editing advice could actually steer you wrong.
What did Dorothy decide for her Scottish novel? I’m not sure, since she moved on to a non-fiction project at her publisher’s request. She’s been so busy writing and revising that we haven’t seen her lately. I’ll just have to track her down and find out.
* All example dialogue was made up for this article.
»photo credit: Tim Green aka atoach