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Listening to the Characters In Your Head

February 13th, 2021

This week I want to take a look at the use of dialect  – or alternative forms of English – in your fiction.  I’ve chosen this topic because I’ve just read two books that demonstrate how this can be done in a masterful way. (More about these, and others, later.)

On the whole, our advice on dialect is simple – avoid it. If you have people talking in impenetrable  accents readers outside that particular group will struggle to understand what the characters are saying. If you use it in dialogue, readers won’t know what many of the regional slang words mean and within a page or two will give up, go away and read something more accessible. Publishers are aware of this and it may limit your book’s appeal to them.

It’s far easier if you merely mention that a character spoke in, say, a Geordie accent and let the reader do the hard work for you. Most readers know what North East speech sounds like and will subconsciously hear the dialogue as being spoken in that accent.

You can help the process along by dropping in the occasional dialect word – but only enough to give credibility, not so much that it confuses. Your Geordie only has to pronounce the word ‘about’ as ‘aboot’ or refer to another character as ‘Pet’ and you’ve created the impression of an accent.

Sometimes you can get away with merely using the rhythms – the unique speech patterns – of an area. ‘She’s a right menace, is our Beryl’ sets your novel in the North West of England  (as Coronation Street viewers will agree), but ‘You’ll not be going out tonight, will you?’ takes you several hundred miles further north to the Scottish Highlands.

It’s not vital that you accurately recreate exact speech patterns, just that you capture enough of the spirit of any area’s vernacular for people to recognise it.

All this is fine, but with increased diversity in Britain and countries around the world there are some fantastic novels out there that tread a line between being accessible but still making the reader feel that they are listening to someone from a different area/culture.

I recently read ‘Mrs Engels’ by Gavin McCrea. It’s the story of Marx, Engels and Engel’s relationship with the two Manchester/Irish working class sisters with whom he lived. It’s told through the eyes of Lizzie Burns the younger sister who he eventually married on her deathbed. It’s brilliant and with hardly any dialect words at all you can hear Lizzie’s background and upbringing leaping off the page.

Next, I’ve just finished Archie Weller’s slim ‘The Day of the Dog’. It’s a tense, heart breaking account of the problems facing young, drifting aboriginal people in Perth. Here, you have to work just a little harder to understand his characters’ interactions and there is a single page glossary at the back (though hardly needed).

And what about some more books whose authors make you hear the people whose lives are playing out on their pages? For Northern Ireland try ‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns; for Glasgow, ‘Shuggie Bain’ by Douglas Stuart; for India, ‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry; for Nigeria/USA,  ‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

If you want to write a book with characters from different regions, cultures or countries then I’d like to suggest you read widely to pick up ideas on how it can be done and what works best. Then don’t  try to copy what you’ve read but analyse why you think it has succeeded (or not) and then listen to your own characters talking in your head and try to be faithful to them!

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