How Writing Dialect is All in the Rhythm

You have created the perfect character, an Italian fisherman working the docks in “Down east” Maine (Aiyup). The character profile you have created describes him to a tee. He’s stocky – muscular, but not fat – has dark hair, dark skin, a mustache, and, oh yes, an accent. Yes, that’s it. “Hee’ya has an accent’a.”

From somewhere out in the literary landscape, a buzzer sounds. Your reader has just gagged and closed your book she was perusing at the bookstore. Game over. You lose.

How can you augment that special character, you have so painstakingly developed, with the proper dialect to give him or her that final element of authenticity?

Start with your ears. Many beginning writers think that accents and dialects have to be phonetically rendered on the page to “sound” real. The truth is that most dialects can be “heard” through the proper cadence, or rhythm inherent within perfectly pronounced words.

Spend some time listening to accents. If you don’t live somewhere that provides you with that opportunity, rent some home videos with characters from places far from your home. However you do it, use your ears to determine what truly makes an accent. You might be very surprised to discover that it has more to do with timing and word placement than actual pronunciation. That’s why lyrics, when sung, tend to lessen the singer’s accent. In part, the timing of the music equalizes the cadence.

For instance, take my friend Carlos. He was born in Mexico but was educated, and now resides, in Arizona. Most readers can relate to that. Provide your reader with the character’s history and let the dialogue do the rest. (They will get it, honest.)

For example, you could write this dialogue for Carlos:

“Yes, Meester Smeeth. I weel be happee to go weeth you to thee house.”

Okay, that was a bit extreme. But, you don’t have to pander to such stereotypical tripe to give Carlos an accent. Give your readers more credit than that. In the next example, the use of proper English is enough for your reader to differentiate him from many people with more “American” dialects. (Whatever that is.)

“Yes, Mister Smith,” Carlos said, nodding slowly. “I will be happy to accompany you to the house.”

Most native-born Americans don’t talk this way. Given that Carlos was born in Mexico, the reader can fill in the fact that he is educated, and likely speaks with an accent the reader can “hear”. Or, you can simply mention it in passing during some very early dialogue from that character.