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I'm a published author of short fiction for kids and adults. I have an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University. I'm a former content writer for Spirit and Truth publishing on their Living the Word series. I've also worked as a paid book reviewer and as a student editor for The Louisville Review literary magazine. I'm a wife and mom to two great kids, three dogs, and a cat. I love books, movies, gardening, kids, and animals.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Character Through Dialogue

My son a few summers back  with his fave transformer

Whether you write novels, screenplays, or plays, you have to use dialogue to help tell a story. Dialogue helps capture the essence of a character and is a handy tool to use to build tension and conflict into a scene no matter what the medium of story.

I usually feel pretty good about my dialogue and character interaction in my novels and short stories. Sure, I know that its never perfect. But when I'm on a roll and immersed in that fictional world, dialogue isn't usually one of the stumbling blocks that leaves me stuck. It isn't one of the parts of writing that I'm left wondering how to fix, either. Most of the time when someone critiques it they are very specific about why it didn't work for them. This doesn't mean I don't spend large chunks of time working through a scene of dialogue, fine tuning it and reworking it to convey what I want it to, because I do. Usually afterwards I'm emotionally drained from living out the scene through my characters.

Recently, however someone challenged me to do something I hadn't really thought about before. They asked me to show the reader that one of my characters spoke with a Spanish accent using dialogue. This made me sit up straighter. How do you write dialogue that makes the reader hear your character's accent? For the first time I was at a real loss. But I knew the answers were out there for me to find if I went looking for them. I started by searching the internet. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn't. There is so much information out there about writing and about half of it is less than helpful. So much so that I actually get sleepy at times slogging through it. This time the first article that came up was on a website, PenUltimate Editorial Services, put together by freelance editor Arlene Prunkl. Ms. Prunkl offers excellent advice on how to write dialects and foreign accents into your dialogue in an authentic and conscientious way. Doing my characters justice and not turning them into caricatures of people who speak English as a second language was one of my chief concerns.

Arlene Prunkl gave some terrific examples of contemporary authors who got this sort of thing right. One was an author I enjoy reading very much who writes about characters who live in the past in the Scottish highlands, Diana Gabaldon. Ms. Gabaldon is not from Scotland or the 18th century highlands. She is a native of Arizona and is probably younger than my parents. But she writes dialogue for her character Jamie Fraser that allows me as a reader to hear Jamie's highland accent clearly without ever realizing she's doing this primarily through her dialogue. I've read all the books in this series, starting with Outlander, and never once noticed it. How did she did she do this? By using a mixture of diction (word choice), syntax (word order), and idiom (native expression) in her dialogue. Ms. Prunkle pasted in an excerpt from the novel Outlander as an example, check out the article link to see it. She also lists past authors who've written dialect into their dialogue that doesn't work.

After reading her article on writing in dialects and accents for characters I realized there are numerous books that I've read that do this very thing. Not only that, there are movies that I've watched that do this well, too. The first Transformers, movie being a prime example. Think about it, Bumblebee has a very specific way of communicating that isn't necessarily a form of English we're familiar with. The screenplay for this movie helped convince us as viewers that Bumblebee using radio waves to communicate was a very believable thing for a sentient robot to do.

Arlene Prunkle went on to list nine key tips to follow when you are trying to convey accents or dialect into your character dialogue. The most helpful of which was to write out exactly what you want your character to say in dialogue first, then go back in and try to rearrange it in a way that sounds like something they would say in their particular dialect. Look at your verb choice and arrangement, use idioms sparingly, and concentrate on getting their diction and syntax correct. You can't do any of this, though until you know what you truly want them to say first.

So, I as I've been rewriting chapters and scenes in my book I haven't been worrying about the dialect of my character, yet. I want to get their dialogue down and the scene right before I tackle their dialect or conveying their accents. I also want to read some juvenile fiction by contemporary authors who've written the particular dialect I want to capture into their books. Learn from the masters that have been successfully published and established themselves as solid authors. I'm glad whoever suggested this to me, gave me this challenge. It has forced me to look at dialogue in way that I think will make me better at writing it. It's also made me aware of what others have done with dialogue to convey character. All good things.

What books have you read that have written dialect or accents into their character's dialogue and done it well? Have you read any books that have done this poorly? Please comment and list them here for anyone out there interested in tackling this type of dialogue writing. I highly recommend reading the article by Arlene Prunkle, too. Just click on the link for her website above.

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