#4 Writing Accents BadlyWriting accents in dialogue can be tricky. If only there could be a one-size-fits all solution for every writer and each scenario. Like so many other aspects of writing a manuscript, using accents calls for sensitivity and a fine-tuned sense of what is correct for your story. My aim in writing this article is to guide you around common pitfalls when writing accents in dialogue.
Ready or not, here they are:
- The way you portray an accent in dialogue says a lot about your opinion of the ethnicity you are portraying. Any prejudices, even unknowing ones, can show up. Having stereotypical characters, a black waiter or Swedish janitor, for example, earns an author bonus demerits. A little soul searching and perhaps asking other writers for input can prevent this faux pas.
- You can accidentally offend an ethnic group. Even if you have no hidden prejudices, others still can take offense by your portrayal of their culture. To protect yourself should this happen, be certain of your statistics. If, say, most janitors in your chosen city and time frame were Swedish, including one in your story would make it historically accurate.
- Failing to interpret an accent correctly may throw readers out of the story. Research to prevent this is easy with sites like George Mason University’s Speech and Accent Archive where you can listen to free voice recordings.
- Writing an accent too phonetically slows and confuses readers. There are limits on how closely to replicate an accent in written dialogue, for good reason. Not everyone writes phonetic spellings or a particular accent the same. We just aren’t geared to pick up phonetic spellings quickly. Challenging readers is desirable in the right context, but this isn’t it. As authors, we want our writing to remain fairly invisible so the story itself can shine. Including a few dropped letters (’tis or s’right for example) or phonetic spellings (like yah know) isn’t ‘wrong,’ however, most writers prefer to keep readers turning pages, rather than sounding out words like grade school students.
[In Wayfarer, Tales of Faeraven 2, some of my characters have a Celtic accent. In this brief exchange between two brothers reunited after a separation involving danger.]
Dorann dismounted in one leap, and the two brothers gazed upon one another with eyes that shone. At last, Eathnor dipped his head. “You’ve healed.”
Dorann put a hand to his once-blackened eye as a slow smile spread across his face. “In truth, I’d forgotten it.” He took in the garb his brother now wore as part of the lof stapp.“Green suits you.”
Eathnor laughed. “That it does.”
Best Practices for Writing Accents in Dialogue
A good rule of thumb is to suggest an accent through word choice, rhythm, and sentence structure. Use dropped letters and phonetic spellings sparingly. Much like table salt at the dinner table, a little seasoning goes a long way.
Next time we’ll cover dialogue writing mistake #5: everyone sounds alike.
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