Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

Character

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I've heard that too much phonetic spelling can be hard to read. How do I create the voice of a character who has a distinctive speech pattern or dialect without it?

Phonetic spelling can be downright frustrating if the reader has to puzzle out what each word means. It also runs the risk of creating characters that seem stereotyped or trivialized. In short, it’s a great way to lose the reader. Yet, it’s important to capture the individual nature of each character’s voice. What to do?

One option is to choose a few defining pronunciations of a character’s speech and use those consistently instead of phonetically spelling all or most of the words. (“It’s this a-way.”) But don’t limit yourself to phonetic spelling alone. You can use word choice and sentence structure to create a readable and distinct voice. The sixteen-year-old narrator in Tom Paine’s “The Anarchist Convention,” for example, often uses the word “like” and sentence constructions hug close to his thought process:

Like a lot of this takes place before me and Nosebone got out there to the Anarchist Convention in Portland in the summer of 1994. Maybe you read about the convention in the newspapers, because of the marital law.

The narrator in Susan Starlight’s “Mines” works at a youth prison. Her voice is constructed vividly using unconventional sentence structures, such as fragments and dropped subjects:

Buzzing in my head. Grandmere said we all got the pressure, inherited. Says I can’t have salt or coffee, but she doesn’t have to eat lunch here or stay awake looking at screens.

You can use this approach for dialects, too, by building on tendencies that are a result of the characters’ native speech. The German language, for example, sometimes puts the verb at the end of a sentence, a mistake that slips into the English of native Germans, especially those new to the language. (“I go twice a week running.”) If you’re using a character with a dialect, listen to people whose native tongue is the same as your character’s. It won’t take long to pick up on the distinctive differences.