"A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings but a cat does not." -Ernest Hemingway

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Diction vs. Dialect: Deciding How to Characterize Your Characters

A writer basically has two options when it comes to characterizing their characters in the way they speak; diction and dialect. Diction is the way in which a character says something; in particular, their grammar, word choice, and the way they express themselves. Dialect is how they pronounce their words. 

For example, when one character says he’s “going out for a night on the town” and another says he’s “heading uptown for the evening,” those are differences in diction. When a character says “there ain’t no fog out thar,” that’s dialect.

Diction and dialect work well for telling anecdotes, because the characters are not constrained by the back and forth of dialogue and can freely express themselves. However, using dialect to show a particular time in history or to make a geographical reference should be done so in a careful manner. Let’s explore:

Here is an excerpt from Emily Bronte’s, Wuthering Heights, published in 1847:

“Running after t’ lads, as usuald!” croaked Joseph, catching an opportunity, from our hesitation, to thrust in his evil tongue. “If I war yah, maister, I’d just slam t’ boards i’ their faces all on ‘em, gentle and simple! Never a day ut yah’re off, but yon cat o’ Linton comes sneaking hither; and Miss Nelly, shoo’s a fine lass!”
It is quite obvious Emily Bronte didn’t have the use of Microsoft Word’s grammar check; otherwise, most of her manuscript would have looked like a lit up Christmas tree! Kidding aside, Wuthering Heights is a masterpiece and is akin to the work of the great Romantic Poets. However, outside of readers who love this style of writing, I would venture to say it would be difficult to sell a book today written with such dialect because most modern readers don’t want to deal with it.

I am not saying it can’t be done. If a certain scene calls for its usage, then using it in small snippets may be a powerful way to get a message across. But, if the character is a main character, instead of them speaking throughout the book with dialect which can be difficult to read, try using diction instead. It can be one of the best ways to overcome regional differences in speech.

Take for example; you have a conversation between two characters. One of the characters has just moved into a small New England town while the other has lived there their whole life. By giving the local character the clipped speech of a New Englander, you’ll make it easier to differentiate between the two characters. Furthermore, if you only give hints here and there of their dialect and then use diction instead, like using a single word like nope in a sentence, you’ll give enough clues that the reader will hear the two characters differently. One author who comes to mind that uses this technique quite well is Stephen King.

So the next time you are writing a story in which you want to differentiate between characters, try playing around with diction vs. dialect and discover a writing style that suits your story’s characters! Who knows, you just may be the next Emily Bronte or Stephen King!

Until next time (oh, and don't forget to feed the fish!),

Keep on thriving, keep on striving and keep on writing!

T.K. Millin
The Unknown Author



  1. I fed the fish again. I believe they are on the lookout for Efi Loo. They're a tad skittish.

    You are so right about dialect. I have been totally turned off and bored to death with over use of such. A few words to get you into the time period or a certain locale should suffice. Carole Gill is a master at knowing just the right amount to use. Me? I'm lazy. I write what I know in times I know and tell it like it is.

    Stephen King has even gone overboard at times with this and there are novels of his I have not been able to stomach because of it. Sorry, Steve.

    This is one reason why I am so against writing contests. I have seen writers win on the basis of their boring dialect. Maybe it's accurate and all, but to someone outside the time or place it is merely annoying.

    Just me!


  2. Blaze, thanks for feeding the fish. I keep trying to tell Efi Loo, biting the screen isn't going to feed her!
    I 100% agree with your comment about Carole Gill (for those visiting, please see her link to the right), using it with just the right perfection. I love her prose. Secondly, even though I stated that Stephen (Steve) King uses this technique quite well, you do have a point in his overuse.
    Your use of diction is perfect for your style of writing. In fact, when I read your work I tend to think of Lee Child's style of writing. Are you two one in the same? :)
    Thank you for taking time out of your busy writing life to visit T.K. Millin, and Efi Loo, once again!

  3. Mystery man Blaze! From now on, my readers will know who is putting his fiery signature on the tales they're reading.

    Writing is about flow. If one loses the flow for seeming effects that don't matter, you lose your readers. Boring books suck.

    Let's see some larger fish, please. Keep posted to Angelic knight Press, T.K. and Efi Loo. Might make those fish grow. :D


  4. Thanks Blaze! It would be an absolute honor to write a story Angelic Knight Press would want, and yes my tank needs to start filling up!! :)

  5. Filling the tank would be great!