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How to Give Your Character an Authentic Dialect

Try all you want to make the words unrecognizable—misspell them, cut them in half, throw in a fistful of apostrophes, sound out every groan the character makes—but the truth is, they are still words you’re dealing with. Here's how successfully write characters who have dialects.
Write Great Fiction: Dialogue

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Most people assume that dialect has to be a part of dialogue. My answer is that it can be, and in certain circumstances it ought to be, but the writer must never feel compelled to duplicate dialects simply for the sake of “authenticity.” The writer who thinks she is writing dialect because she is clipping the ends off of words and stretching out others is often taking delight more in her own experimentation than in any real sense of story. She may be shooting for a folksy charm or for a root authenticity, but most often she fails miserably. Try all you want to make the words unrecognizable—misspell them, cut them in half, throw in a fistful of apostrophes, sound out every groan the character makes—but the truth is, they are still words you’re dealing with.

Consider this example.

—By Tom Chiarella

Two grandmothers sit on a porch in Tennessee; one of them is trying to convince the other to go into town to get a pie from the grocery store to serve at dinner the next day:

“Sho’ ‘nuff smo time leff fo you to git on downtown fo’ ‘nother pan dat pie.”

“Ain’t but a-our o’ two leff in the day. Dat walk take lease three hours, dere and back.”

“But ‘choo know dey love dat pie. Ah shore-ly do. You too. Ah love to serve that pie at a good suppa. Please
git on.”

“Ah had a car, Ah’d go. Ain’t no car workin’ in walkin distance tis whole place. Ah know you want dat pie. Ah know you do. Ah set out, maybe to barra Kip’s hahrse and buggy.”

“Ah hope so, light’s afailin.”

This is incredibly bad. The language is absurdly disguised behind the pretense of dialect. To be sure, it is an exaggeration. But each choice made by the writer-a misspelling here, an apostrophe there-is a little piece of what most people consider to be the essence of writing dialect. That is, it shoots for the sound of the words rather than the words themselves. In this case, it is difficult to read, complicated to decipher and once done, it’s hard for the reader to get a sense of anything outside of the basic question set up by the exposition that preceded it.

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But wait. Perhaps you can read it, and while maybe you can’t understand every detail, you like it. That’s right, you think, that’s the way they talk in the South! You like reading dialogue aloud, sounding words out for their music. I give you high marks for admiring the music of language, but if you like this kind of writing, buy yourself a French horn and try to blow Shakespeare through it. You’re sure to get a clearer use of language. You might also coat-check your preconceptions of human beings in the southern half of the United States, because no matter how poor or little-traveled some people in Tennessee might be (or in the Bronx, for that matter), they use language when they speak, and language is more than jamming a washcloth in the mouth of the speaker to get at the “sound.” All language has a logic; all language has dignity. It’s words as much as sounds.

When a piece is choked by dialect, the way this example exchange is, you have to work your way back to story through language. The writer of this sort of dialogue would probably say you have to read it aloud to understand it. When you do that, it becomes clear that “Ah” equals “I” and “dat” is “that.” This is a good illustration of relying too heavily on dialect. Right now you are probably saying “Ah” out loud. To some, this reads like the sound the doctor asks you to make before he swabs your tonsils for strep; for others, it is more nasal, sounding like a grunt made in an argument (“Ah … yeah. That’s true, but … ah … I have another point to make on that matter.”). The word has become a sound. A word created to mimic sound has to be an absolute success in terms of its music. There are entire novels where this happens (Alice Walker’s The Color Purple comes to mind), but in these books, the entire thread of the novel teaches the reader the language of these sounds. We can’t presume to do the same within the short dialogue we’re discussing, but in terms of translating dialogue, it looks something like this:

Sho’ ‘nuff smo time leff fo you to git on downtown fo’ ‘nother pan dat pie. “There’s still time enough for you to get downtown for another pan of that pie.”

Ain’t but a-our o’ two leff in the day. Dat walk take lease three hours, dere and back. “Ain’t but an hour left in the day. That walk would take at least three hours, there and back.”

But ‘choo know dey love dat pie. Ah shore-ly do. You too. Ah love to serve that pie at a good suppa. Please git on. “Please get on. You know they love that pie. I surely do. You do too. At a good supper, I love to serve that pie. Please.”

Ah had a car, Ah’d go. Aint no car workin’ in walkin distance tis whole place. Ah know you want dat pie. Ah know you do. Ah set out, maybe to barra Kip’s hahrse and buggy. “If I had a car, I’d go. Ain’t no working car even in walking distance. Shoot. I know you want that pie. I know it. Maybe I’ll set out to borrow Kip’s horse and buggy.”

Ah hope so, light’s afailin. “I hope so. The light’s failing.”

The language here contains plenty of dialect. But now the dialect is basically confined to word choice and syntax rather than spelling and misspelling. The machinations of dialect no longer keep us from meaning; rather they lead us to it. The accent is there for the reader, but it doesn’t overwhelm the scene. Nor should it, ever.

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Dialect that works

Plenty of writers have been noted for crafting excellent dialect-Amy Tan, Sherman Alexie, Toni Morrison, Gus Lee, Earl Lovelace, Alice Walker-but William Faulkner is a champion of the ages. What works beautifully in Faulkner’s dialect is that it is so heavily modulated with the narrative that it becomes true music. The sound of the characters’ language tears through the narrative consciousness of the work. It is a part of the sound of the whole experience of Faulkner’s world. Consider this passage from “The Bear.” Watch how the narrative shifts fluidly from the one dialect to the other and then into the movement of the narration. In this scene, seven strangers wander in to join in Major de Spain’s epic hunt for
a bear:

They were swampers: gaunt, malaria-ridden men appearing from nowhere, who ran trap-lines for coons and perhaps farmed little patches of cotton and corn along the edge of the bottom, in clothes but little better than Sam Father’s and nowhere near as good as Tennie Jim’s, with worn shotguns and rifles, already squatting patiently in the cold drizzle in the side yard when the day broke. They had a spokesman. … “Mawnin, Major. We heerd you was aimin to put that ere blue dawg on that old two-toed bear this mawnin. We figgered we’d come up and watch, if you don’t mind. We won’t do no shooting, lessen he runs over us.”

“You are welcome,” Major de Spain said. “You are welcome to shoot. He’s more your bear than ours.”

“I reckon that ain’t no lie. I done fed him enough cawn to have a sheer in him. Not to mention a shoat three years ago.”

“I reckon I got a sheer too,” another said. “Only it ain’t in the bear.” Major de Spain looked at him. He was chewing tobacco. He spat. “Hit was a heifer calf. Nice un too. Last year. When I finally found her, I reckon she looked about like that colt of yourn last June.”

“Oh,” said Major de Spain. “Be welcome. If you see game in front of my dogs, shoot it.”

The center of this scene is the meeting of these men and the history they share. The scene does not revolve around Faulkner’s use of dialect. It is merely an element within the scene. The dialect is governed by a logic and consistency, demonstrated here and throughout the story. Yes, it is difficult to read, but it ebbs and flows through the momentum of the narrative, never obscuring meaning.

Many contemporary writers are also serving as fine examples of how to do dialect well. Consider James

Kelman’s opening lines of his wonderfully dark novel How Late It Was, How Late:

Ye wake in a corner and stay there hoping yer body will disappear, the thoughts smothering ye; these thoughts; but ye want to remember and face up to things, just something keeps ye from doing it, why can ye no do it; the words filling yer head; then the other words; there’s something wrong; there’s something far far wrong; ye’re no a good man, ye’re just no a good man. Edging back into awareness, of where ye are; here slumped in this corner, with these thoughts filling ye. And oh christ his back was sore; stiff, and the head pounding. He shivered and hunched up his shoulders, shut his eyes, rubbed into the corners with his fingertips; seeing all kinds of spots and lights.

The dialect is inescapable, difficult and brilliant. Notice that it is not pressed into dialogue in pieces, but instead it is the voice of the narrative consciousness. When the dialect is the sound of the entire book, the good reader has more patience with it and accepts that the endeavor of picking up a novel like this is to feel the language of it as part of the experience of reading it.

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So why does this work, and that first “pie” dialect exchange does not? The sound of the voice here is consistent and musical. The particular spellings are not thrown across the page (“spots and lights” could have been spelled any number of ways to give in to this accent). Throughout this novel, the voice of the dialect is an internal component of the protagonist, Sammy, a Glasgow street person who has been brutalized by the state. This voice intertwines with a more direct consciousness that works externally and more straightforwardly.

Examine the following dialogue, which occurs in the first chapter of the book after Sammy takes a beating by some soldiers and wakes up in jail, blind. The book then becomes a story of voices, overwhelming at times, but always clearly governed by a dual consciousness: the voice of Sammy and the narrative voice.

His back, it was sore. The spine especially; down there at the bottom, roundabout the lower ribs. He had to stand up. He stood up. He stepped a pace to the left, then worked his hands in where it was hurting, massaging with the tips of his fingers. His right foot kicked against something metal.

Sit down. Samuels: sit down.

I need to stretch my legs.

Just sit on yer arse.

Can I no even get standing up?

Thirty seconds.


That’s twenty of them.

Kelman does not overwhelm the reader with idiom and accent. There are no intentional misspellings (both “yer” and “arse” actually appear in the British dictionary, by the way). Diction and syntax are manipulated to create these patterns. Here the dialect rises out of the words, that is, sound and meaning, rather than mere sound. It works for that very reason.

There is no quicker way to fail, no quicker way to sell yourself short than to write unconvincing dialect. Your best intentions become mawkish charades. Readers are challenged not to live in your story, to get at the heart of what you have to say, but to “check” the loose strands of accent and spelling. It’s one thing if you’ve spoken patois since childhood or if you grew up speaking the clunky street talk of Brooklyn, but it’s quite another when you assume to have mastery over the music and meaning of a dialect simply because you’ve heard it here and there. Here’s a good rule of thumb for dialect: Do not use the language unless you live the language.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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