My family and I made it back to Portland from our extended weekend on Vashon Island. We had a great time with my mom on the Island, and a lovely visit with friends in Seattle. My kid got to ride a horse, play outside, and snuggle with his grandparents. He was very happy. The train rides were mostly wonderful, and our trip back home was quick and easy. All in all, it was a great vacation.
On our train ride up to Seattle, I found my inspiration for this post. We sat across the asile from a group of four older folks, who were just a little bit country. I found them charming, and fun to listen to. At one point in time, during the card game they were playing, one of the group used the term, “Dag gum!” in a sentence. It was in no way ironic, and I almost died trying not to giggle.
Mind you all, I wasn’t laughing at the speaker, I was laughing at the turn of phrase. Aside from the Cars movies, I had never heard anyone use the term aloud. It made me think of all the other turns of phrase that are a part of our world. America, being the large country it is, has many local dialects. I have been lucky enough to travel to most of the states, and have gotten to hear many different local sayings.
When I was a teen, I lived on the Big Island of Hawaii. I was a goofy Haole with a sassy mouth and was a little unprepared for my new environment. I managed to get out of a fight one day by playing off a specific phrase. One of the girls I knew came up to me (’cause she was mad about me hanging out with her boys) and asked me, “Eh, you wan’ beef?” Meaning, “You want to fight?” I couldn’t help myself, and responded very literally. I told her, “No thanks. I’m a vegetarian.” Fortunately for me, this made her giggle and we decided we could live with each other.
I still have random bits of Pidgin in my sayings. I also have a bit of the South in my speech patterns. I tend to say “Ya’ll” and get a bit Belle-ish in certain situations. I pick up dialects, and I have stayed in many places around the country, so I have a lot to choose from. Every now and again, I’ll slip into a Boston accent. It tends to make people wonder where I’m from.
What does this have to do with writing? Everything. When you are writing characters, there is a fine line between making a insensitive (and potentially rasist, sexist, other -ist) caricature of a person instead of adding a bit of flavor to your narrative. I love having a feel for where the characters I’m reading grew up, or are at, but it can be done very poorly. It can also be hard to read straight dialect.
How do we, as writers and audience members, solve this? All I can tell you is what I like, and what I do. Maybe you’ll agree with me, maybe not. I like a few turns of phrase thrown in. When a character I’m reading says something like, “Wicked! Let’s get to the park.” I automatically read the rest of the character’s dialogue in an East Coast, Boston accent. If the whole thing is phonetically spelled out, or all in dialect, it drives me crazy. It actually takes me out of the story.
Adding a bit of dialect shouldn’t be used as a way to get out of writing good dialogue. Sometimes authors use it as a crutch instead of the burst of personality it should be. Enough about how I feel, what do you all think? Should dialect be used in dialogue? Or should all our dialogue be in Newscaster speak? Where is the line for you?
As always, thanks for reading, please share.
I don’t mind over-the-top dialect, it can be pretty entertaining! Mister Swales from Dracula comes to mind, as do the various rural farmers in the James Herriot books. But yeah, it can be a slog if it’s not handled well. I love me some regional accents!
I also don’t mind some over-the-top-ness, if it’s done well. When it’s done poorly, ouch! It can be bad. It can be a great way to differentiate your characters, or show a new scene.