Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Pop or Soda? Using Dialogue to Create Regional Characters

Kathryn Page Camp
Writers often create characters who aren’t native to the story setting. Giving these individuals particular dialogue traits makes it easy for readers to identify them during a conversation, but it can also provide hazards for the writer. Then there are those stories where all the characters come from the same region but the region itself has a distinctive dialect.
We can create regional characters by using regional speech patterns. Those patterns contain three components: pronunciation, grammar, and word usage. All affect dialect.
And each component has its own pitfalls.
Some writers (e.g., Mark Twain) portray dialect sounds very well, but most don’t. You’ve probably read at least one book where you had to stop and try to figure out what the character was saying. That takes the reader out of the story, which is a cardinal sin.
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott ends her chapter on dialogue this way:
One last thing: dialogue that is written in dialect is very tiring to read. If you can do it brilliantly, fine. If other writers read your work and rave about your use of dialect, go for it. But be positive that you do it well, because otherwise it is a lot of work to read short stories or novels that are written in dialect. It makes our necks feel funny. We are, as you know, a tense people, and we have a lot of problems of our own without you adding to them.
But even doing it brilliantly is not enough. You also need to do it right.
Dialects have their own pronunciation rules, and if you choose to write a dialect as it sounds, you had better be aware of those rules. Take Bostonian English, which is considered “r-less.” According to linguist Natalie Schilling, Bostonians tend to drop final Rs and Rs that come between a vowel and a consonant, but they never drop initial Rs, Rs that follow a consonant, and those that are inserted between vowels. For example:
·         THIS: He missed the pa’ty because he blew a tire when driving around a pa’ked ca’ blocking the road.
·         BUT NOT THIS: He missed the pa’ty because he blew a ti’e when d’iving a’ound a pa’ked ca’ blocking the ‘oad.
If you ignore those rules, expect an onslaught of complaints from the Boston area.
So how can a writer indicate a character’s regional origins without risking the hazards of bad dialect usage? Try this:
Hearing a familiar Southern drawl, I froze. Had Candice returned from vacation already?
From now on, we can identify Candice as the speaker by throwing in an occasional “y’all” without attempting to replicate the rest of her speech patterns—at least if she is from Georgia. People from Kentucky have less of a drawl and are more likely to say “you all” than “y’all.” (See and the Kentucky results from the Harvard Dialect Survey, mentioned below.)
Pronunciation and grammar are the ends of a sliding scale. Is using “git” for “get” primarily pronunciation or primarily grammar? I’d argue that it can be easily identified as either, putting it in the middle of the scale.
Most people don’t consider the use of pa’ty as a grammatical issue, so it fits on the pronunciation end. Then there are those practices that come down clearly on the grammar side. Take a-prefixing in Appalachian English, which is the practice of adding “a” before an “ing” verb (and dropping the “g” at the end)—think “a-goin’ a-fishin’.” As with Bostonian r-lessness, however, a-prefixing also has rules. An a-prefix can be attached to “ing” verbs but not to gerunds, adjectives, or objects of prepositions, even if those words also end with “ing.” (See
So if you are going to use either pronunciation or grammar to create a regional character, make sure you know the rules.  
Word Usage
When we talk about dialect, we usually mean pronunciation and sometimes grammar, but word usage is also important. Do you say “pop” or “soda?” If your character grew up in Michigan and calls it “soda,” be prepared for another onslaught of complaints from all those Michiganders who know better.
Using data from the Harvard Dialect Survey, the graphic at the head of this post shows word differences between people from Illinois or Michigan (on the left side) and people from Pennsylvania (on the right side). I didn’t include Indiana because those of us who live in the northern part of the state talk more like people from Illinois or Michigan rather than people from the rest of Indiana.*
It’s usually easy to get our own region’s dialogue right because we know it when we hear it, but other regions can be filled with booby-traps. So where can a writer go to keep from making regional errors?
Here are a few resources.
·         Use this link from the Harvard Dialect Survey to discover usages in the various states. Just click on the state you want for a breakdown.
·         This link is for the Atlas of North American English:
·         And here is a link to the Dictionary of American Regional English:
Finally, and just for fun, take the Harvard Dialect Survey to see how well your speech reflects your roots.
* Southern Illinois might align more with southern Indiana, but the Illinois figures are heavily influenced by the Chicago results.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at


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