Writers are voyeurs – or rather, they should be. We are somehow intimately connected to the visual aesthetics of the world, meaning we tend to notice more than “regular folks.” We see story ideas almost everywhere. But this ability does not always translate well into writing dialogue. How can we fix this?
First, spend some time listening to the way and manner in which people speak. As I told my summer writing camp group last week, no one speaks the King’s English perfectly all day. In fact, research shows that people practice a technique called “code switching,” meaning we speak one way at home and another way in public. So, if your character is a drug dealer from the mean streets of Chicago, study how Chicagoans speak, roll their consonants and use body language (nonverbal cues). This character should not sound like a Harvard graduate in the streets – unless…unless…I digress. But listen to how people speak and how they use language to express themselves. A great example of this ability is any work by Langston Hughes, but especially his jazz poetry. I encourage you to google a few and read them thoroughly. He was considered the voice of “his” people during the early 20th Century.
Secondly, language has more than one meaning/usage/spelling. For example, the word “ho.” Now, I know this sounds elementary, but this could be a garden hose or a woman who is lose with her body. Know the difference in terms of usage and spelling. For authentic dialogue, use the language that best fits the character so that the reader can differentiate that character from others in the story: mark them with language. This also means to understand how different ethnic groups and social classes use language. One way to confuse a reader is to not clearly indicate either through language or character description the socioeconomic status of said characters. For example, I’ve seen this happen with book covers. The characters on the cover are of a different ethnic background than what is mentioned in the book. Be careful.
Finally, dialects. I briefly alluded to this above, but study the different dialects/accents of different regions, etc. I would hope that your characters might live in a diverse world or at some point travel so as to have interactions with different people, etc. Even more so, I do hope that you as a writer become fearless in branching out to write in other genres which may require different settings. This aids in making you a stronger writer and brings a level of credibility to your work that can set you above other writers. Don’t be afraid to try!
These are just three simple tips to help you create authentic dialogue. It is one of my specialties as many people note about my work. You can “hear” my characters, and that is the greatest compliment a writer can receive, I believe, because if the reader can hear them, then they can see them, and now they become real.