Characters: Speech

by | July 6, 2018 | General | 4 comments

by Ashley Lister

Last month I mentioned that characters can be built through four elements: appearance, speech, action and thought. As we looked at appearance last month, I figured this month would be a suitable time to consider speech.

The basic rules to writing speech in fiction can be summed up in one word: clarity. So long as your reader understands what your character is saying, you’re doing it right. And one of the most frustrating ways of messing with clarity comes when readers give their characters regional accents.

The following examples comes from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

‘What are ye for?’ he shouted.  ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld.  Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him.’

‘Is there nobody inside to open the door?’ I hallooed, responsively.

‘There’s nobbut t’ missis; and shoo’ll not oppen ’t an ye mak’ yer flaysome dins till neeght.’

‘Why?  Cannot you tell her whom I am, eh, Joseph?’

The first and third line of dialogue belong to the broad Yorkshire character Joseph. Those who are familiar with Wuthering Heights will probably be familiar with the intrusion of Joseph’s dialogue in this otherwise entertaining tale.

Perhaps I’m biased here. I grew up in Yorkshire and Brontë’s representation of Joseph’s accent strikes me as being a long way from what I encountered from friends and family. But, more importantly, I find this to be a distracting piece of text. Instead of concentrating on Joseph’s message, I’m trying to work out how to pronounce ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld.’ This is a novel and I’m supposed to be engaged with the story and the characters. I shouldn’t be trying to work out how to say words.

Elmore Leonard in his 10 Rules of Writing says, “Use regional dialect and patois sparingly” and it’s a rule I would fully support.  Dialogue is intrusive and, regardless of how much fun the author things the reader will have in decoding a phonetic transcript, the truth is most of don’t want that added nuisance.

If it’s important to your character to have some regional flavour in their speech, allow them to use the vocabulary of an area rather than the dialect. For example, in the extract above, Brontë could have written, “The maister’s down in the fold.”  We’ve got that single word ‘maister’ which suggests a Yorkshire accent, but is sufficiently close to ‘master’ so we’re not puzzled by the content.  And we know that Joseph isn’t going to simply utter one word in this dialect and then articulate the remainder of his speech in BBC English. To my mind, this is a more effective way of conveying regional difference without interrupting the reader’s suspension of disbelief and their immersion in the narrative.

This is not to say that no one should ever write characters with a regional accent.  I’ve just come back from a writing conference where a very clever lecturer explained that no writing rule is an absolute and there will always be scope for subverting rules under some circumstances.

I agree with what he said and I believe, if you’re writing a piece and it’s essential that your character says, ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld.  Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him,’ then you should follow your authorial instinct and produce the story in that distinctive fashion. However, if your beta-readers and your editor say that some parts were a little confusing, or dragged them out of the story, I don’t think it will take long to work out where the problem is.

I’ll talk more about creating characters through speech next month but for now, as always, if you want to share any of your dialogue in the comments box below, I’m always happy to read and respond.


Ashley Lister

Ashley Lister is a UK author responsible for more than two-dozen erotic novels written under a variety of pseudonyms. His most recent work, a non-fiction book recounting the exploits of UK swingers, is his second title published under his own name: Swingers: Female Confidential by Ashley Lister (Virgin Books; ISBN: 0753513439) Ashley’s non-fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines, including Forum, Chapter & Verse and The International Journal of Erotica. Nexus, Chimera and Silver Moon have published his full-length fiction, with shorter stories appearing in anthologies edited by Maxim Jakubowski, Rachel Kramer Bussel and Mitzi Szereto. He is very proud to be a regular contributor to ERWA.


  1. Nettie kestler

    It’s good to see that you’re still doing these exercises. It feels like coming home. As a matter of fact, I came here because I’m “starting it all back up” – again. For this year’s National Poetry Writing Month in the U.S. I picked up a pornetry-story-tale idea I’ve had bouncing around for over a decade and started fresh. This is probably the third reboot on the tale. We’ll see how far it goes. I made it through 30 days of writing on it and just barely pricked the transition from what I see Remittance Girl has outlined in her “Pervert’s Journey” as “The Call to Adventure”.

    I love writing poems which are story length, but dialogue… Oh man. Dialogue has always been my bane, in both prose as well as poetic forms. When I have a monologue going it can be just fine, however, trying to manage multiple characters and differentiate them across what I have are essentially 30 cantos… not quite sure I’m a success. So, I’ll catch up reading on your blog, looking for both inspiration and advice. It truly was wonderful to come back and see this. Anyway, here’s my opening monologue for the long form poem, “The Girl With Flowers for Hair”:

    One might wish a story be gently told, but
    there is nothing mild about the habit in which
    cold blue blood bursts from its bag of skin.

    It reminds me of the dancers who performed
    before her just nights ago. Young women
    with hair as dark as crows leapt across the stage
    trailing brilliant silks behind them. They were made
    sea creatures diving within blue and bluer waves;
    their dark hair long and threaded with silver – the glint
    of sunlight tracing the roll of each surge. This scarlet arc
    is, of course, not the color of the clean blue waves
    of the Forgotten Sea. No, the color is closer to that
    of the sun dying against the blade of the horizon.
    And when her body falls into the grass, her red throat
    joins with the green found at the end of a day.

    • Ashley Lister


      It’s lovely to see you here again. The imagery in this canto is stunning.

      Young women
      with hair as dark as crows leapt across the stage
      trailing brilliant silks behind them. They were made
      sea creatures diving within blue and bluer waves;
      their dark hair long and threaded with silver – the glint
      of sunlight tracing the roll of each surge.

      That is such a clear and powerful visual it really is amazing.

      And thanks for the prompt. Perhaps I need to do a little more about how to craft dialogue.


      • Nettie Kestler

        Boy, I’d appreciate it. Especially as I’m working with multiple female characters. It’s the mother’s voice I’m having a hard time with…differentiating that voice from her daughter’s. I find differentiating voice between the sexes much easier, I think because there are vocabulary differences. At least, that’s what I’m playing with. That said, the vocabulary between a mother and her daughter, it seems harder. I dunno…

        I just finished arranging the drafts, so will be reviewing to figure out how / where to go next. I’m glad the opening is strong. Thank you.

  2. Lisabet Sarai

    The excerpt below isn’t pure dialogue, but I think the speech does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of establishing the characters of Haley and Diane. This is from my lesbian short “Late Show”, recently republished as a bonus tale along with my novella The Witches of Gloucester.


    “Hey, Di! Heard you worked here.” She sauntered up to the booth and grinned at me through the glass. “How’re ya doin’?”

    I stared at her, paralyzed and dumb with lust. Heat rippled through me. My earlobes, my nipples, my clit, all felt like they’d burst into flames at any moment.

    “Ah—um—hello…um, hi, Haley.” I was eighteen again, tongue-tied, overwhelmed, marveling at her effortless, androgynous beauty . “Um—welcome back.”

    “I’m just passin’ through— on my way to LA, got a job waiting—but I had to stop by to look up an old friend…”

    Her voice went low when she said that word. She meant something else. A chill skittered up my spine. “Wasn’t sure you’d still be here, though, stuck in this dumpy little town. Weren’t you headed to college?”

    “Yeah, well…” I shrugged, a splinter of regret piercing the bubble of desire. “Jack didn’t want me to go. You see, he was just starting his business, and he told me he needed my help…”

    “Ah, yes. Jack.” Haley’s lips twisted like she’d eaten something sour. “And how is Jack?” Her fists clenched at the sides of her designer jeans. I almost expected her to spit.

    My cheeks were on fire. “Um…Jack’s gone. Took off with his secretary, nearly five years ago. I guess he’s somewhere on the west coast. He sends us a check every now and again—when he remembers.”

    “Bastard.” Haley swept her fingers through her hair, pushing it off her forehead. I remembered the
    gesture. “What do you mean, us?”

    “Me and my son. Jack Junior.” Could I really be sorry about my choices, given my baby? At that moment, though, may God forgive me, I wished he’d never been born.

    Haley’s expression softened. “You poor girl.” She tugged open the door of the ticket booth. “You need a hug.”

    Her scent hadn’t changed—tobacco and leather, old-fashioned lavender and good honest sweat.
    Like a trained dog, I began to salivate, new wetness flowing everywhere. When she leaned in, reaching for me, though, I shrank away. It was too dangerous. If she touched me, I was lost.

    “No—Haley, there’s no room in here—Mr. Parsons…the customers…”

    She paused, her gaze raking over my trembling body before returning to my face. “After ten years, Di, you still gonna shut me out?”

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