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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Problem with Accents

Yesterday we started talking about how to give our characters a unique voice. I didn't talk about accents at that time, so let's cover it now.

There is a fine line between giving your character voice by writing accents and dialects and completely killing your story. For instance, I remember reading a certain "classic" as a teen where I spent more time in the back of the book looking up translations of the dialogue than reading the story. I hated that book.

This is not that story, but another example I found online:
“W’en old man Rabbit say ‘scoot,’ dey scooted, en w’en ole Miss Rabbit say ‘scat,’ dey scatted. Dey did dat. En dey kep’ der cloze clean, and day ain’t had no smut on der nose nudder.” Uncle Remus – A Story About Little Rabbits
Feel free to shoot arrows at me for not liking the way Uncle Remus wrote that. I'm unapologetic. And most readers today don't have time to figure out what language you're writing in. They want to sit down and disappear into a readily accessible world.

Here's an example that I like and could read without tearing the pages out of the book:

Think Eliza Doolittle singing, "Just you wait, 'enry 'iggins! Just you wait!"

The accent is a bit more subtle. A little bit will go a long way. If you focus on the rhythm and speech patterns instead of the phonetical spellings, things will work better.

For example, we have a few phrases where I come from that may not be used elsewhere.
"I'm a fixin' to go to the store. Do you need anything?"
"I'm gonna..."
"Well, bless her heart..."
And so on. Most of the time you can suggest the accent in other ways and the reader will hear it even though you don't 'write' it. For example, “her honeyed accent melted off of her tongue, slowly, sweetly, and with the same elongated syllables that her mama used.” (from Writing Dialogue, see below.)

One quick note. Listen to your characters. Sometimes they all ready have a voice of their own and you don't need to figure out what it is. And sometimes it doesn't make sense. I'm working on this first draft and my male MC keeps saying ma cherie. I love it when he says it, but it bugs me too. You see, the whole novel has a Celtic vibe running through it, and he does use several Celtic phrases, but ma cherie is so French. *sigh* That's something I'll have to figure out and address before I call this new WIP finished.

Are you ready to share some of your Voice segments? Remember they don't have to have an accent. Just share something that sounds like your character.

Email them to unicornbellsubmissions@gmail.com with Voice in the subject line.

Helpful Links:
Grammar Girl: Writing Accents and Dialects
Writing Dialogue in Accents and Dialects
Using Slang and Accents When Writing Fictional Dialogue


Tara Tyler said...

i will try to get one to you tonite, plus accent.
question, do i hafta use the apostrophe when droppin the g?

Huntress said...

Oh, I'd like to know the answer to that question myself.

Is 'gonna' 'kinda''gotta' okay to use? I am guilty of using those.

haven't used 'hafta' but, hm, I think I will find a place for it now :)

Nisa said...

This is great! I have 4 different cultures running through my WiP and I've tried to distinguish them through catch phrases. One of the groups has an accent. I think I'll flesh it out more once I've finished the rough draft, but I've definitely tried to keep it light and easy to read.

(Though I'm one of those people that don't mind the first example. Easier means more readers, right?)

Angela Brown said...

I've sort of taken a step back from adding dialect to my WiP. I started the first draft with it then my betas suffered. They couldn't get around some of the dialect. It was a lot easier to read with I changed just the dialect. But I must admit, I've also suffered through a hard to read book because it was riddled with hard-to-understand dialect.

mshatch said...

I usually tend to go light on dialect and accent, altho there was Harlan Harris, my US Marshall...

“Good to see you awake,” the man said in a deep, gravelly voice, “How you feelin’?”
“Not so great,” Jack answered.
“Somethin’ to drink, right?”
“That would be nice,” Jack managed.
“I’ll be back in a sec,” the man said, “Then maybe you an’ me can have a talk.”
“Sure,” Jack agreed, immediately beginning to rehearse the identity he had chosen for himself.

Michael Offutt, Expert Critic said...

One of my characters has an English accent. I hope I pulled it off well.