Thursday, December 19, 2013


by Ursula Renée


One of the best ways to convey a character‘s personality is through his own words. His language, dialect, and slang can give readers a clue about his heritage, education, and social standing. It also makes him stand out, enabling the readers to identify when he speaks without the use of dialogue tags.

An author, however, needs to be careful with speech. She does not want to use so much slang, regional dialect or foreign words that a reader would need to refer to a dictionary when reading the novel. She also needs to make certain that words and dialects fit the characters so readers do not become offended (you would not assume everyone from England speaks Cockney therefore all African-American characters should not speak Ebonics).

Before an author decides a character‘s speech, she needs to know the character‘s biography as well as the setting and time period of the novel. A person‘s culture, age, household, education, and job can affect how she speaks. It would be out of place for a gangbanger to say, “Would you do me the honor of partaking in a bit of nourishment with me?” when speaking with his homeboys. At the same time, a college educated man in 1945 would most likely not say, ”It ain‘ gonna doya no good ta tawk wid ‘em” when addressing his boss.

Once you have decided how a character would speak, try to be consistent throughout the novel. You should not switch the speech pattern unless you have a good reason. For example, a Harvard educated African-American man raised in an upper middle class family would not start using street-slang if another African-American walks into the room unless he was under-cover.

Also, pay close attention to the time period and setting so you do not have your characters using words not common for that era or location. The use of modern words in an historical can pull a reader out the story. Once jolted out, it may be hard for her to return to a work that has a cowboy on an 1883 cattle drive declaring, “That cat is so square even his name is corny.”

To research various slangs and dialectics try traveling to the area where the story is set and listen to locals. If the trip cannot be made, various websites, including the International Dialects of English Archive ( and The Speech Accent Archive ( can help authors get a sense of how people from various areas sound.

If the novel is an historical, read popular works that were written during that time period to get a sense of how people talked. Try to read a variety of works from various authors to get a broad understanding of the language. Also, a search on the Online Etymological Dictionary ( can help determine if a word is appropriate for a particular time period.

When using slang, an author may want to consult with someone familiar to the lingo. This can include people who speak the language (teenagers or someone who lives in an area where the language is spoken). People who work around those who use the slang (i.e. teachers, police, social workers, etc.) can also be consulted.

Words can have different meanings depending on the region a person is from, who is speaking, and who is being spoken to. Therefore, if an author uses foreign words in a novel she should ask someone who is fluent to verify that the words convey the meaning that was intended.

Dialects, slang and various words can help with character development. However, the improper use can cause readers to roll their eyes and abandon novels that insult their intelligence. Therefore, it is necessary to conduct some research when creating dialogue. ♥

Ursula Renée, who is the co-Vice President of the RWA/NYC, writes historical romances and thrillers. When she is not writing, she enjoys drawing, photography and stone carving. Visit her at

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