Dialect in Dialogue by Jude Sierra

When I was writing my third novel, Idlewild, I spent a lot of time pondering (agonizing) over speech patterns in dialogue for my characters. This story takes place in downtown Detroit; in it we have Tyler, a young, genderqueer black man coming out of college and into adulthood who grew up in the city. We also have Asher, a sort-of middle aged (I am struggling to reconcile 33 as middle aged, if only so I can avoid being called so myself, ha!) Jewish man from the suburbs who has become stuck in the wake of his partner’s death. Idlewild was a beast to write; in part because good, complex romance involves complex people navigating the world, and writing that is hard. Additionally, this particular book touches on many difficult to navigate threads: race, class, gentrification and grief being the most prominent.

Idlewild also features a third character: Malik. Malik is Tyler’s boyfriend at the start of the story (no worries, no cheating). When Idlewild came out, I was not expecting people to fall for Malik. I was definitely not expecting requests to write him a story! I think many authors can speak to the fear we harbor that readers might hate a character we love. Having readers fall in love with a character who might be divisive was lovely.

Malik might have been a side character but he was vital to the story. Without Malik, Tyler’s story, and the story I wanted to tell about the city of Detroit, would have suffered.

Malik is complicated. Malik is a black man from one of the worst neighborhoods in Detroit. He has no family to speak of, other than the made family he’s found with Tyler’s family. Malik is intelligent and driven. He’s a political science student at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Malik is also angry. He’s not destructive, he’s not filled with rage. But he has a fire, one that informs that desire to do better. To be better. To take care of those he loves, to fight for a better life. He and Tyler and Asher all share a love for Detroit. Their visions of Detroit’s past, current situation, and future differ, but their core belief is in their city.

I am currently finishing up my Master’s in a Writing and Rhetoric program where I study Cultural Rhetorics and also pedagogy (teaching theory stuff). My program is diverse, political, outspoken and challenging. We challenge each other and we talk about things that make each other uncomfortable. We air differences with the understanding that we will be listening to understand, not listening to defend ourselves. Things can get heated, but with the understanding that that is the point; in the end, all of this is a form of coming together. The conversations we have are vital. Everyone is still learning.

When I wrote Idlewild, I worried for months over how to write Malik. In many ways, Malik was born of those conversations with fellow MA and PhD students; when writing Idlewild, I spoke with them often. In Malik I wanted to write a driven, smart man who is taking anger at injustice, at oppression, at systemic racism, at discourses of erasure, and turning that anger into something productive.

Early in the book, when Tyler describes Malik to Asher, he tells him that Malik is going to change the world. And he will.

One aspect of writing his character I had to consider was dialect. This is something I see other authors grapple with. In real time, in the city, with these characters, they would be speaking in particular dialects with speech patterns. Call it Black English, African American Vernacular English, Ebonics– if not all, I’m betting y’all have heard of one of these names (even within my program, scholars who study this call it different things at different times). Sadly in my life, outside of my lovely progressive academic bubble, the rhetoric surrounding the use of these dialects is, frankly, racist.

In our program, with my students, with my children, I advocate for the use of one’s own language. I recognize that the use of dialect doesn’t equal ignorance or lack of education. On the contrary, many people who employ dialects have the ability to code-switch between dialects. They have more language skills. The narratives of language that inform negative perceptions and stereotype people’s use of language don’t just run deep. They are pervasive, they are insidious, and like other complex narratives, are made up of many threads that weave together.

When I first wrote Tyler and Malik, Malik spoke with dialectical patterns that Tyler, for the most part did not. That’s because Tyler makes a conscious choice to change his speech according to situations — after all, Tyler is a chameleon. He’s purposely changeable. Malik, on the other hand, refuses. His choice not to change his speech did not preclude his ability to. It’s a personal and political choice.

However. The sad truth is that had Malik spoken in only dialect, there was a chance readers would see him as nothing but a stereotype. And he’s not. Malik is his own, fully fleshed out, very real character with his own story. Perhaps we didn’t get his whole story in Idlewild, but trust me, he has one. In an early draft of the book, Malik even had a speech about his choice to honor his own language; unfortunately I just could not make it work. Like other themes I tried to work into the book, when stated too explicitly they made the book incredibly didactic and clunky.

In the end, I attempted a compromise: slipping small speech changes and sentence constructions into both his and Tyler’s dialogue. The intentional choice to insert those or use them reflected something I was doing — scene setting or character work or just honoring the tone of a situation.

But the fact is that I still wonder, almost daily, if I made the wrong choice.

I was lucky to have four amazing sensitivity readers for Asher, Tyler and Malik, one of whom really appreciated what I chose to do with their dialogue. Still, I’ll always wonder if I did Malik and Tyler a disservice. Beyond my sensitivity readers, I also ran my story, my characters, and the work I was trying to do by several friends. A common thread in their described lived experience regarding their decisions about when or how to speak was this: when people hear them speak, they stop listening to voices and let ingrained, systemically taught prejudice speak louder.  Much like their skin, their speech patterns mark them.

The balance between honoring the truth of our characters and gauging audience reaction and problems that might arise from misunderstanding is something I think many authors feel or worry about. Or, in my case, panic and agonize over. Malik’s story is so important – not just as a moving part in this larger story, but on its own. When writing him, I was troubled as to how I could most effectively ensure that readers were going to listen to him, to his heart, and to the story of Detroit, because I know the risk existed that people would judge, dismiss or misunderstand him based on the way he spoke.

I understand that reading dialect can be a challenge. Alexis Hall is a fantastic example of an author who embraces dialect fully in character speech. His use of it in Glitterland was so uncompromising and true to his characters and the work he was doing for their story. I admire that. I will admit too, though, that I had a hard time getting into the swing of that book at first, because it was a dialect pattern I was completely unfamiliar with. I couldn’t ‘hear’ it at first. I think that readers might differ here – as a reader, I don’t want the author to do all of the work for me. That book asked me to do some of the work too. The characters’ story was compelling and rich and kept me on my toes.

Perhaps not all readers want that though. Glitterland makes readers confront the prejudices they carry that are tied to speech patterns (I want to clearly acknowledge that this book takes place in a different country with different historically built narratives built into language use and dialect). I often wish I had read Glitterland prior to writing Idlewild. I can’t say how it would have changed the story or my choices, but it certainly helped me see ways in which confronting the values we tie to dialect through use can work.

While I didn’t do this work in Idlewild, reading Glitterland really made me wonder: what do readers of romance want from dialogue? How do you feel about dialect? Do you want it? Does use of dialect change your perception of the speaker in particular ways? For authors: what informs your choices regarding dialect and language use? What factors are at play?

And here’s where I leave this conversation open: weigh in!

jude pic

Jude Sierra is a Latinx author who began her writing career at the age of eight when she immortalized her summer vacation with ten entries in a row that read “pool+tv”.

As a sucker for happy endings and well written emotional arcs and characters, Jude is an unapologetic bookaholic. She finds bookstores and libraries unbearably sexy and, to her husband’s dismay, is attempting to create her own in their living room.

She is currently working on her Master of Arts in Writing and Rhetoric and managing a home filled with her husband, two young sons, and two cats. She also works as a reviewer for the LGBTQAI+ book blog From Top to Bottom Reviews. Her first novel, Hush, was published in 2015 by Interlude Press. What it Takes, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, is her second novel. Idlewild, a contemporary LGBT romance set in Detroit’s renaissance, was named a Best Book of 2016 by Kirkus reviews.


Links: Website  |  Twitter  |  Facebook  |  Goodreads  |  Book blog


Please note: all opinions and statements expressed are those of the author and not of Open Ink Press LLC or its affiliates. 

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6 thoughts on “Dialect in Dialogue by Jude Sierra

  1. Insightful treatment of a complex issue.

    I am all in favor of immersing the reader in the story, and dialect can help with that. Dialect also reveals a great deal about a character. And it can be a barrier to understanding and a pain the rear to read. It requires the level of knowledge and care that’s needed to write in a language not your own. For example, the dialect used by Black people in Minneapolis is not the same as in Detroit, and native speakers can tell them apart.

    Consider the various southern dialects. Studies have shown that people connect “talking southern” with a lack of intelligence and/or education. But maybe it’s also connected with hospitality or racism or… And having every final “g” replaced with a ‘ can be annoying (just for a start).

    Remembering the basic, to put the reader first, the answer might be to use just enough dialect to clarify the character without shutting out the reader.

    1. Excellent point! This came to me after I submitted this — or sort of in a related way — that I forgot to add that a big roadblock to this too was the fact that I don’t speak or know the rules of this dialect either. I would never have done it without the help of someone who does — had I chosen to go forward with it, I definitely would have gotten a sensitivity reader who was well versed in it. I would never recommend using a dialect in a book without either a) being a speaker of it or b) employing a speaker.

      I love what you said about putting the reader first; you are always such a great advocate for readers, I appreciate that.

  2. I love how deeply you are thinking about all of this. I’ve read books with dialect, including Glitterland. I’m also dyslexic in a way that makes it easier for me than most people to understand dialect verbally, but *far* harder in written form.

    When writers slip in a bit of slang or historically used phrasing, such as ‘hep cat’ or ‘you don’t say’ in a novel set in the 50s, it works and is readable. But when it’s something spelt differently than traditional spelling, it becomes nightmarish for someone like me. Reading English is difficult enough. I don’t see all the words on the page and I don’t see them in order. Deciphering alternate spelling…shoot me now.

    Also, regardless of dyslexia, given the nature of the written medium, anything unusual in text catches the eye and looms larger than perhaps the author intended. A change in font, in caps, etc. In audio and video, the listener/viewer has more to catch them, pay attention to and carry them away into the story. In text-only, the text has an inordinate amount of emphasis. It’s text and my imagination only. So anything written heavily in dialect inordinately spotlights that dialect. The dialect may never recede back to middle ground for many readers so the story can take center place. If you were writing your book as a screenplay, I think your use of dialect could be different than it might be in print successfully.

    Speaking of movies, my suggestion to writers is often that they consider how film directors deal with similar situations where an environmental reality might not play well to the screen. For example, a scene taking place outside in the bitter cold where everyone’s breath would be white and cloudy, partly obscuring their faces. In that case, directors often show the first breath or two as cloudy to help set the idea of chill of viewers’ minds, and then they return to visible character’s faces.

    In written form, this might mean slipping in dialect occasionally in carefully chosen places to let readers know what ‘language’ a character is using for a scene, but then slipping to non dialect forms for the rest of the scene.

    That said, you might have to give an audiobook narrator more direction. Which is more work, but also more exciting.

    1. Wow, thank you so much for this response! We have several people in my program who focus A LOT on accessibility, and this highlighted things I hadn’t thought about. Also, great advice — I’ve never thought about using that sort of directorial approach to writing a scene, particularly when thinking about how and when to use dialect. That’s really helpful advice.

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