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Writing In Accents

August 16, 2011

 

            When creating different characters, and trying to come up with distinguishing features for each one, it is tempting to use accents. Whether it’s an Irish brogue or a Texas drawl, an accent can give a distinction between characters, especially when you are trying to cut down on so many dialogue tags. However, there is a distinct down side to writing in accents.

            It is one thing to hear an accent, but it’s entirely another to read it on the page. A group of lines with too many apostrophes is a red flag that you’re writing yourself into a problem. I once read a story with several of the characters talking in thick Scottish accents. Though I had no trouble understanding, and even visualizing their speech, it also made me hesitate as I adapted to the rhythm of each quirky word.

            I’m just as guilty of using accents in my writing. In Lusitania Gold, I have two Irish/English ruffians that are the local dirt bags. Their accents are a combination of Irish and Liverpool English. I worked real hard to get their phrasing just right, interviewed several Irishmen and Englishmen along the way. I think I nailed their accents. However, one of the complaints I got from readers was that they couldn’t follow the dialogue. All that work! I originally wrote that story in 1995 and stubbornly kept to their stilted dialogue for the longest time. However, I’ve learned that to minimize writing in accents is one of those “rules” to follow. After suffering through many novels where the writer wrote in accents with abandon, I finally saw the light. That and enough badgering from my writers’ group. That rule is there for a reason.

            Readability.

            Not everyone has been overseas, or has been exposed to as many accents as I have. I can’t expect others to “get” what I’m doing.

            The key to accents is to drop a word, here and there. Give the “illusion” they are speaking in that accent. Let the reader fill in the blanks. A Texas drawl can be done by the character saying “Boah” once in a while (that’s “boy,” by the way). You don’t need every word to be written like that. My Russian character, Vladimir will mispronounce certain words. I use that technique to portray his accent. I also use it for comic relief. Most people will hear their own version of a Russian accent whether it be Boris Badinov or Anton Yelchin. That creates the illusion of an accent. As hard as I worked on Lusitania Gold, one of the things I had to fix was the dialogue between those two dirt bags. It made the reading a lot easier.

            Make it easier on yourself and your reader. It will pay off in the long run.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jack Campbell, Jr. permalink
    August 16, 2011 10:48 pm

    I definitely agree. While Trainspotting is one of my favorite books, it was a pain to read until I got the accent down. It was like learning a language, complete with a dictionary of terms in the back. I don’t think most readers want to work that hard. He did it and pulled it off. I’m not sure anyone can do it again with the same effect.

    • August 16, 2011 11:31 pm

      Jack,

      That is exactly what I’m talking about! What a pain to have to slog through a book like that. The reader shouldn’t have to do that. Just an occasional key word here and there to remind the reader, then let them fill in the blanks.

      Welcome to the site and thanks for the comments!

      Fred

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