Who doesn’t love a good accent? British, Indian, French, Spanish, Irish, Australian, South African, and Japanese actors, among many others, all bring added spice to their roles on the American big screen. And I suspect the same holds true in reverse (when I visited Australia several years ago, someone told me she loved my accent, which was a total mindbender for me). Exotic settings and unusual characters are one of a writer’s most enjoyable opportunities in fiction—and sometimes these opportunities will allow our characters to speak in foreign languages, dialects, or accents.
So far, all is cool. But, too often, writers get carried with their accents. Because we hear our leading man’s Scottish burr so clearly in our own heads (and because it makes him nth times more awesome), we’re determined to share that experience with our readers. So we start manipulating our character’s dialogue to reflect his accent. (After all, everybody knows that properly spelled dialogue must always be read with a plain-vanilla American* voice).The result might look something like this:
The Scotsman stomped into the room and smacked his claymore onto the table. “Ah dinnae ahsk fer mae dinnah tae be tan minuts laht, nae did I, mae wicket lahssie?”
The French maid turned away from the pot of bouillabaisse bubbling on the stove. “I do not zink you are funeee, monsieur. You blundaringg scoundrelles are all ze zame! No dinnar for you after zis!”
This dialogue exchange might communicate the nationalities of the speakers (or not: would you really be able to decipher the characters’ accents if I hadn’t told you where they were from?), but it also creates plenty of problems, including:
Were you able to read that dialogue at a glance, or did you have to stop and sound out each word? Even then, you might have been left guessing a time or two. When we interrupt our readers’ experience of our story and force them to think about the way the words are put together, we’re just asking for their suspension of disbelief bubble to pop.
Do these characters come across as fascinating—or just cartoonish? By forcing readers’ attention onto the pronunciation rather than the words themselves, we’re robbing our characters of their personal power. Is it the way they say their words that makes them great characters—or is it the words themselves?
Should you happen to be intimately acquainted with Scottish or French speakers, I’m going to guess you probably snorted your coffee as you rightfully determined that my knowledge of these accents only stretches as far as my film-going acquaintance with Gerard Butler and Marion Cotillard. You can’t fake mastery of a dialect on paper anymore than you can in real life.
All of the above contribute to a general sense of reader distraction. If readers are too busy trying to decipher your dialogue, laughing at your characters’ silly speeches, or rolling their eyes at your less-than-perfect grasp of the dialect, they’re not going to be thinking about how awesome your story is.
If you can’t use phonetic spellings to indicate a character’s accent or dialect, then what can you do?
Remember less is more.
Readers are smart. They don’t need much encouragement to get the idea that your character talks like Jackie Chan or Helen Mirren. Sometimes just mentioning your character’s nationality will be enough to help readers hear the proper accent when reading your dialogue.
Rely on the rhythm of the language.
An accent is just as much about interesting rhythms and phrases as it is the actual tilt it brings to the words themselves. Let your character’s interesting word choices or incorrect sentence constructions carry the burden of conveying the foreignness of his speech.
Use the occasional phonetic misspelling.
One or two phonetic misspellings aren’t likely to trip readers up. But go sparingly. You’re not going to want to get much more radical than leavin’ off a “g” here and there.
The reason some authors are so adamantly attached to the idea of presenting dialect syllable by syllable is that they love their character and they love that their character speaks with an accent and they want readers to love that character just as much for just the same reasons. But—and trust me on this—if you’ve done your job right, readers will love your character just as much with or without the accent. In fact, if the accent is done poorly, they’ll definitely love him much more without it.
Dialect Done Right
Let’s take another look at our original dialogue example—but without all the undue attention on the speakers’ accents:
The Scotsman stomped into the room and smacked his claymore onto the table. “I did not ask for my dinner to be ten minutes late, now did I, my wicked lassie?
The French maid turned away from the pot of bouillabaisse bubbling on the stove. “I do not think you are funny, monsieur. You blundering scoundrels are all the same! No dinner for you after this!”
Now wasn’t that much easier to read? Didn’t the characters come across more clearly? And didn’t you still get the gist that the characters were foreign (both because the narrative told you they were and because each line of dialogue included a dialect-specific word)? Trust your characters to be lovable without affectations, and trust your readers to be smart enough to hear the accents with only a few prompts.*Or whatever the writer’s native tongue may be.
Tell me your opinion: Have you ever written a character who has an accent or speaks a dialect?
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