Distinguish Your Characters With Dialect

BizarroDay-edDo your characters have their own voice or do they sound the same? I had a critique partner tell me that she couldn’t distinguish characters in my manuscript based on dialogue. They all sounded the same. If I hadn’t provided a dialogue tag, she would have had no idea which character was speaking. She was right.

This was something I definitely had to correct. So I did some research, watched a webinar, and took a class on dialogue. Distinguishing between characters is a lot easier than you would think.

One way to differentiate characters and determine who they are is through dialect.  We can learn a lot about a person based on their accent, grammar, and choice of words.

You don’t have to ask a person if they are from the North or South-just listen to how they speak and note their word choices.  While this is one of the most obvious examples for me, you can also distinguish education level, social status, race, and ethnicity from the way a person speaks.

One thing you want to avoid is coming across offensive or stereotypical(racist).  Look at your word choice or variation of syntax as tools to differentiate your characters and suggest their ethnicity.

Use slang, nonstandard syntax, or grammar to suggest race, social class, education i.e. gonna vs. going to,  kinda vs kind of,  holler vs hollow, don’t matta vs It doesn’t matter. If you have a character from abroad throw in some regional slang ( Scottish say-aye for yes and bairns for children).

The next time you read a book take a close look at your characters and their dialect. You will learn a lot, and the fact that you didn’t even think about it while reading the novel is a plus for the author. It was woven seamlessly into the story.

Creating a characters speech pattern is less about reproducing dialect and more about knowing your character. If your character is……

  • terse                –   short burst of speech
  • angry               –   speaks through clinched teeth
  • nervous           –  stammers or rambles
  • domineering  –  silent and threatening or rages

If you’re writing science fiction you can develop you own language and your own rules. There is no limits. Just be consistent.

Hope this gives you something to think about when writing dialogue. Remember to differentiate using dialect, and the dialect should match your characters position in society. Also remember to be consistent with speech patterns, unless an evolution in speech pattern is an integral part of the story (Flowers for Algernon, My fair lady).

-Jan R


Distinguish Your Characters With Dialect

11 thoughts on “Distinguish Your Characters With Dialect

  1. Reblogged this on Wind Eggs and commented:
    Before you jump to Jan R’s post on learning to distinguish characters with dialogue, let me precaution you.

    You can easily distinguish characters by adding dialect. However, good dialect is difficult to write.

    Even well-written dialect can distract from the flow of the story. When I use it, I highlight one or two key mannerisms (“you all” or “you guys” instead of you. Only in extreme circumstances would I use “y’all” or “youse guys.”) When your readers have to slow down to process complex dialect, you’ve exchanged indistinguishable characters for awkward, plodding prose.

    The same goes for creating world vocabularies. The Dune series worked the motif to death by the last book. The world’s moved on. Yes, there are readers that expect fifty glossary pages at the end of the book. Those readers rarely stray from formula fiction, Many readers hate wading through ponderous prose forcing us to turn to the back. It’s one of the first reasons we pass on to the next book.

    That being said, once you finish your first draft, it’s time to look at your dialogue. If all your characters sound the same, readers find it difficult to follow the novel.

    Jan R shares her experiences learning to write distinguishable character dialogue.


    1. Another precaution: don’t make the character sound like an illiterate fool by over use of Spanish or Italian broken English for example. There should be some balance but yet the character’s speech must be genuine speech. . Particularly annoying I have found that authors who have Black characters from the hood are really off the mark with ” we boyz be from da hood ” attempts and often a person from an area of mixed lower class population centers can see that the slang and sentence patterns are quite contrived by a white author. I have lived in areas where people can’t seem to speak a single sentence without profanity including the m….f….er gem. The talk may be accurate but offensive to the reader. That’s a problem when the vernacular used by the author is true and accurate. Then there’s Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer masterpieces. They have been removed from many libraries including school libraries especially because of the inclusion of the N-word. Others may object to the ghetto English which would naturally be spoken in the hood as racial prejudice and insulting to minorities. In addition, don’t use vocabulary that would be interpreted as beyond a character’s probable education level. The inclusion of French or Latin phrases also annoy me as a reader and most would be considered over used cliches(please excuse this redundancy). The use of “preplanned and irregardless are also irritants for me as a reader.


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