Note from Day: For those of you just coming to Unleaded: Fuel for Writers, the post below is from Unleaded contributor Robb Grindstaff. As mentioned in Saturday’s post, his debut novel, Hannah’s Voice is now available. Robb also took the time to add to Unleaded’s collection of Writerly Tips.
Dialect and Disability in Fiction
Hang with me, and I’ll connect these two unrelated topics.
Using dialect or accents in fiction can be treading dangerous ground. In my novel Hannah’s Voice, the story is set in a small town in North Carolina. I needed the characters to realistically speak with a southern accent, use local idioms, and generally sound as if they were from North Carolina.
I lived in North Carolina for several years, so I know what a Carolina accent sounds like, and I know how it differs from a Texas or Oklahoma accent, where I’ve also lived. The accent in the central Piedmont is different from the Blue Ridge mountains. Fishermen on the coast sound completely different than bankers in Charlotte or NASCAR fans in Greensboro. Even in one town, people will speak with different degrees of accents and use different phrases depending on their age, gender, occupation, income and education level. The accent can even fade in and out depending on who they’re talking to.
In fiction, every character also must have a unique, distinguishable voice. If every character sounds exactly the same, it’s hard to tell who is speaking. So I needed to write each character with a true-to-life dialect for that character. I wanted the dialect to help ground the reader in the setting, in the tone of the novel, and give each character his or her own voice.
But have you ever tried to read a novel or short story where the writer accurately portrayed, or at least attempted to accurately portray, a strong dialect? It doesn’t matter if it was a southern accent, or an Old West novel, rural New England or an urban black setting.
When the dialogue is in too heavy of a dialect, it can be almost impossible to read and very irritating. If you happen to be from that area and speak that dialect, it will feel like the writer is making fun of you. Exaggerated southern accents are common in movies and television, and usually with the sole purpose of showing southerners in a less-than-favorable light – the ignorant redneck syndrome. Isn’t that just as bad as overdoing the stereotypical African-American dialect or an ultra-heavy Hispanic, Asian, or Arabic accent?
Dialect is a strong spice in fiction. A little bit goes a long way. Too much, and it becomes so overpowering that you just can’t get it down without gagging. You can sprinkle a little cinnamon on your apple pie, but don’t try to swallow a spoonful of cinnamon. You can choke to death.
Finding the exact right amount of dialect spice is tricky. Too much, it becomes unreadable. Too little, and you lose the flavor. I’ll use a couple of examples to illustrate. This first one I’m just making up:
“Wa-al, howdy y’all. I was jes’ a-fixin’ up some vittles. Y’all come in here and set a spell afore I puts on da grub, den we’uns will stuff our faces with dese here homemade biscuits ‘n’ gravy.”
Could you read an entire novel where all the characters spoke like that and the writer spelled out all the words in a phonetic replication of an accent? Readers will stumble over every word, every sentence, have to stop and re-read on occasion and try to translate what the characters are saying. At least until they give up and throw the book across the room.
Second example, from Hannah’s Voice, where her Sunday school teacher says this about Hannah:
“What on Earth has gotten into this child?” Mrs. B stood in the middle of the living room, rubbing her hands together as if she were washing them in a sink. “Running out into the storm like that to grab a pile of snow. That just ain’t natural.”
In the North Carolina setting that’s already been established, Mrs. B speaks in a manner that fits the town and the character. But nothing there is overdone or attempts to sound out a southern accent. It should read easily and natural, whether you’re from the south or from North Dakota or California. Can you hear the accent? I hope so.
The second type of dialect I had to deal with in Hannah’s Voice was that of a six-year-old child, the first-person narrator in a book that is aimed at adults, not children. Again, I wanted to go with light flavoring, just enough to make it clear to the reader that the story is being told by a six-year-old for the first half of the book. The second half jumps ahead to when Hannah is a teenager. But if I’d precisely mimicked a six-year-old’s voice for 150 pages, it would have been as unreadable as the exaggerated southern drawl example above. Neither could I write it narrated by an adult voice and tried to keep it in real time from a six-year-old’s perspective.
I went for relatively simple, straightforward language, but I let Hannah’s voice and her internal thoughts rise a little older than a typical six-year-old, sprinkling in a little of the phrasing and idioms and thought patterns of a child to keep the reader grounded in the character and her age.
Several trusted beta readers pointed out things that a six-year-old would never say. A writer-friend who is a child psychologist gave me a lot of tips on the thought processes at age six, and I tried to blend those in naturally to help create a believable six-year-old, but with a voice that an adult could read without distraction or irritation.
Later in the book, the story jumps ahead to Hannah as a teenager. Also a bit tricky here to keep her voice consistent, and yet older, more mature in her words and thought processes, yet clearly recognizable as the same girl.
When Hannah goes to college, she is paired up with a deaf roommate. I didn’t think, “Oh, I need a character with a disability.” What I needed was a character that would play against Hannah’s character. Hannah stopped speaking when she was six, way back in chapter two, and hadn’t spoken in twelve years. Um, yes, by the way, I had to write a first-person narrator who doesn’t speak. But that’s a subject for another day.
So Hannah doesn’t speak, and the college matches her up with a roommate who can’t hear. That’s why I needed a deaf character. Ginger, the roommate, can read lips, but that doesn’t help since Hannah doesn’t speak. They have to figure out how to communicate.
Ginger can speak, however. As many deaf people do, Ginger spoke with a dialect—the natural voice of someone who has learned to speak but has never heard her own voice or the voice of anyone else.
Back to the dialect thing. I wanted to accurately convey Ginger’s voice, her dialect, the way she pronounced words, the extra sounds she would throw in. I wanted to show that sometimes people had trouble understanding her.
But I didn’t want to make it so hard to read that it became irritating to the reader. Neither did I want to make it so exaggerated that it could be construed as ridiculing the way a deaf person speaks. I wanted just enough of that spice to create the character’s voice in the reader’s head.
I went stronger with Ginger’s dialect when she is first introduced to the reader:
The dorm room wasn’t quite like the orphanage. The orphanage was a little nicer. It looked more like the shelter—block walls and worn vinyl tile floors. I covered most of the floor with a rug Suzette had given me, and stacked my textbooks for the first semester on the shelf. First in alphabetical order, then I took them all down and put them in order of my class schedule.
“Yo kind ah vanal, awn’t yo?”
I didn’t understand Ginger’s words. I shook my head and motioned for her to say again while I looked at her, like that would help since I didn’t read lips.
“I say-ah-da,” she enunciated and exaggerated each syllable, “‘ou kind ahv ay-nal, awn’t ‘ou?”
Just organized, I wrote, and she giggled.
Here, I wanted to establish her voice, and I wanted the reader to have trouble understanding that first sentence the same way that Hannah had trouble understanding it.
As the story progresses, the degree of that dialect quickly fades as Hannah (and thus the reader) grows accustomed to Ginger’s way of speaking.
Ginger told me Warren was upset.
“He finally worked up the ner-vuh to ask ‘ou out, and now ‘ou awn’t coming back-uh. He is kind-uh cute, don’t ‘ou think-uh?”
It’s still there, and much stronger than the southern accent used throughout the book for all the characters, but it’s lighter than at the beginning. Even with this lighter version of Ginger’s dialect, I couldn’t use it much. She’s a minor character who only appears in a few scenes. If she’d been a major character throughout the book, I would have gone much lighter on the dialect.
Give your characters unique voices that fit the story, the setting, and each character. Use dialect when appropriate to your story, but be very careful not to overdo it. Let it flavor the voices lightly, not overpower the dialogue. Don’t make readers work to hear the voice or have to decipher what the characters are saying. A little goes a long, long way.