Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
This topic has come up again and again in my world over the last few months. From authors to readers at the blog to members of editing groups, everyone seems to be talking about writing accents—what’s best, how it’s done, how much is too much.
There are multiple issues that writers and editors should consider as they convey accents, so I’m going to include as many as I can in this article.
Up front, I’ll admit that I hope to discourage you from using misspellings to convey accent and encourage you to use other options only infrequently.
For the most part, when writers ask about accent, they usually want to know how to convey it in dialogue.
Do I write every word as the viewpoint character would hear it, using odd spellings?
Do I choose to show only some words as words spoken with an accent?
Just what should I be doing to convey accents?
The adage less is more is perfect for accent use. Accent can be intimated without smothering dialogue (or readers) with it. The hint of an accent is sufficient; readers can take that hint and run with it, using their own imaginations to fill in the gaps. Just as there’s no need to lay out every step a character takes to move from his bedroom to his car or from his car to his office, we don’t need to include every word that sounds different to the viewpoint character’s ear. When we write dialogue we’re not trying to recreate sounds, we’re relaying words.
I think that last bit bears repeating: when we write dialogue, we’re writing what was said, not the way it was said. We don’t need to change spelling to indicate an accent. The spelling is the same no matter what the pronunciation.
Let’s look at an example.
Peter hated his rigid schedule, drinking either two or three glasses of water and taking his vitamins before eating his yogurt.
The italicized words are pronounced one way in British English (BrE), another way in American English(AmE)—and in additional ways if we consider a variety of regional accents—yet if a character heard the words spoken by another character, no matter what the accent, the words (with one exception) would be spelled as I’ve spelled them here. Yogurt is the exception. AmE spells it without the H, BrE includes the H. So the spelling would depend on your audience or your own background.
If I’m an American character and I hear a British character say the yogurt sentence, I’d report the dialogue this way—
Lilith said, “Peter hated his rigid schedule, drinking either two or three glasses of water and taking his vitamins before eating his yogurt.”
I wouldn’t write it as
Lilith said, “Peter hated his rigid shedule, drinking ither two or three glasses of water and taking his vit-amins before eating his yog-uht [or yah-gurt].”
If I’m a British character and I hear an American character say the same sentence, I wouldn’t write it
Lilith said, “Peter hated his rigid skedjool, drinking ether two or three glasses of wadder and taking his viteamins before eating his yo-gurt.”
If we wouldn’t change the spelling for these words and the different pronunciations, why do it for other accents? There is no reason to change spelling to reflect pronunciation. Spell the words as they are spelled and use other conventions to indicate accent.
As an option, you can use components of dialect—which have to do with word choice, word order, and grammar in addition to accent—to convey that a character sounds different to your viewpoint character. So maybe a character says y’all or wee or nappy when other characters say you or tiny or diaper. One character may say “Are you going to go to the party” while another says “You gonna go?” Word choice is an excellent way to show character differences and to hint at accent.
Keep in mind that when you try to spell an accent, you may be reflecting your own experience and not that of your character or reader. So while you might be trying to convey the sound of a Scots accent, your character may not be hearing the same pronunciation differences that you hear. And Scottish readers certainly wouldn’t need odd spellings to hear the words pronounced as you think they should be. They’re likely to wonder why you’ve spelled the words wrong.
Give readers a few clues and then let them imagine how a character sounds. Don’t micromanage the experience for them.
A Second Example
Last year, editors in a group that I follow were asked how they pronounced Mary, merry, and marry. I’m boring and pronounce all three words the same way—mare-e. (I’m not going to include an official pronunciation guide, just give you an approximation of the sound or pronunciation.) I say all three words to sound like mare (the horse) plus the letter e.
Many who responded also pronounced the three words the same, yet others pronounced only two of the words the same while still others pronounced all three differently.
You (or characters) may pronounce one or more of the words as may-re or mai-re (similar to the sound in maize). You might say mare-re or mir-e (or meer-e) or mir-re. Some pronounce merry closer to murray.
Yet no matter what the pronunciation, the words would be spelled Mary, merry, and marry. Pronunciation doesn’t guide spelling (we certainly understand that to be the case with many of our English words). If a word is different—gonna rather than going to—then the spelling would be different. But then we’re into dialect rather than just accent.
My suggestion is that you don’t try to make readers hear an accent by manipulating spelling. Yes, Mark Twain did it. But this isn’t 1885, and your audience isn’t Twain’s audience. Spell dialogue correctly and use other methods for conveying an accent if it’s actually important that you do so.
Still, creating an accent may not be as critical as you imagine it to be.
Let’s look at another few issues concerning writing accents.
I want to point out that there are two different concerns regarding character accents. For one, writers try to show accented speech of people speaking the same language but who come from another country or region—national or regional differences in the same language. So, for example, a writer tries to duplicate Scottish-accented English. The second issue is a writer trying to convey an accent for a character who’s learned a second language but who hasn’t quite mastered it yet. In this scenario, for example, a character in an English-speaking country may speak English with a French accent.
The issues we’ll look at next may speak to one of these concerns more than the other.
What about Thoughts?
If you insist on trying to make dialogue spellings look the way a character sounds, have you done the same with that character’s thoughts? It’s not likely. But why wouldn’t the words be spelled the same in speech and thought, especially in first-person and deep third POVs? If you insist that readers hear what a character sounds like, thoughts should receive the same treatment as speech, at least in POVs with a close narrative distance.
Yet that would definitely be overkill. This is one major reason trying to convey the sound of accents through misspelling isn’t a good idea.
Only One Character Pronounces Words Differently?
By pointing out the accent of one character rather than the peculiarities of the speech of all characters, it’s as if you’re saying everyone else speaks one way and only one character pronounces words differently. But that’s never true. We all have speech idiosyncrasies, but if you highlight the speech of only one character, you’re not being evenhanded and you’re being blind to differences. You may be ignoring other differences purposely or by accident, but the result is your characters aren’t playing on a level field.
Many people pronounce you’re as yer, so you’re kidding ends up sounding like yer kidding. Others pronounce for as if it were spelled fer—Fer God’s sake, Melvin. We drop Gs at the end of words or maybe add an R sound—I saw it coming can sound like I sawr it coming.
Are you including these kinds of spellings for your characters, or are you pointing out the accent of only one character? If so, why? Because that puts him or her into a different social class or race? If you were going to use spelling in dialogue to reflect character accents, you’d realistically want to do so for every character and every word. But we typically don’t do that, and our readers thank us for our consideration. And as I mentioned above, there’s no reason to do it for one character much less all of them. We’ve got better ways to imply accents or show that a characters comes from a different region or country.
A Character’s Background
Consider your character’s background and experiences before deciding to highlight an accent.
For example, a woman just moving to a foreign country may speak the language of that country with difficulty. But a woman who’s lived there for twenty years will likely have learned the language, especially if she’s worked with the public or almost anywhere outside the home. If she’s sent her children to local schools and watched TV with them, if she’s had to deal with teachers, bankers, utility companies, co-workers, and clients, it’s likely that she’ll have learned the language. Sure, she may drop some letters from words, but she’ll be less likely to sound like a new immigrant.
Also, consider how a character learned the language he is speaking. Some characters may learn through textbooks, but many likely learned a second or third language not through textbooks and classroom instruction but through hearing it spoken. That means that everyday phrases—how are you today, what can I get you, did you hear about that accident—would be familiar to and common for the character. The character would memorize phrases, and they’d be spoken the way a native speaker would say them. The character wouldn’t have to think about grammar. She wouldn’t skip words.
For example, a woman who moved to the US as a young adult would have learned conversational English, not the grammar and conjugation of the child’s classroom. She might not know every word in English, but she’d use the same common phrases that the English-speaking people around her would use. And that means contractions and other shortcuts.
So rather than say I not know singing, she’d be much more likely to say I don’t know how to sing because that’s what she would have heard. She wouldn’t mix up verb tenses or forget helping verbs or articles, because focusing on those kinds of issues probably isn’t how she learned to speak English.
Those who learn languages from books have a learning experience different from that of those who learn from people speaking directly to them. Learners who learn from conversations use the phrases they hear in those conversations.
I don’t know where that street is.
I’m looking for a bank.
My sons love their mama.
Write Around an Accent
In modern fiction we seldom try to convey accent by misspelling words. We instead use a few words that reflect rhythms and cadences and the flavor of a character’s background. We may use a particular word order some of the time. But we also shortcut by mentioning that a character has an accent. (Raul had missed his mother’s softly accented words. Carlotta rolled her Rs in that delightful way that I had never learned how to duplicate. Lena loved listening to Shannon’s rapid delivery when she spoke to her son. It was much faster than the unhurried and melodic rhythm she used when she spoke to Lena.) Using these techniques, the reader is prompted to hear an accent, even when we don’t try to write out that accent in every word.
Conveying accent or dialect word for word can come across as racist at the worst or insensitive at best. It may also have readers assuming that a character isn’t as educated as others in the story. And again, if you use misspellings in dialogue or even bad grammar to highlight the accent of only one character, readers may wonder what you’re subconsciously saying about that character, her ethnic group, her social standing, or some other characteristic.
If you’re writing accent for one character, you should be doing it for all. But you definitely don’t want to do that, not if it means misspellings and overemphasizing differences.
My suggestion is that you don’t try to spell how an accent sounds.
Driving Readers Crazy
Rendering accents word for word can be distracting for readers and/or make the text much harder for the reader to work through. You want to make sure that readers know what a character is saying without them having to work at deciphering her speech; the meaning is more important than the delivery method. You don’t want accent and speech patterns to get in the way of the story. A character’s accent is only one small part of her, but when you present too much of it, trying to show everything exactly as the character would say it, that accent is what the readers will see. You want a character’s personality and dialogue to shine, not her accent.
The meaning behind a character’s words should be more important than the accent in which she says them.
Let the readers’ experience with foreign languages and people from other countries influence what readers hear. That is, don’t direct every moment of this experience for readers. Let them bring their own experiences to this aspect of story, just as they do with other story elements.
Conveying Accent is No Different from Conveying Other Info
You don’t describe every bush and flower in a garden—you give readers the highlights. You don’t write dialogue the way people actually speak, with all the uhs and ums and banal pleasantries—you give readers only the good stuff. You don’t tell readers every little action a character makes—rolling out of bed, washing her face, stripping, getting into the shower, washing, pulling on each piece of clothing, making her bed, and so on and so forth. You give readers only what’s important for plot and characterization.
Rendering an accent or dialect should follow this same pattern—the use of a light touch to convey not all information but only necessary information. Don’t try to duplicate the real world; rather, make the fictional—despite all its falseness—seem real.
Allow Characters to Speak a Different Language.
One option to reduce reliance on accents is to consider having characters speak another language part of the time. Simply present dialogue in English (or whatever language you write in) and say that the characters were speaking another language. You wouldn’t do this all the time, but it’s an option that would eliminate problems with writing accents.
Once caution: Be sure not to include English slang that doesn’t translate easily to other languages.
Misspelling an Accent One Time
You could try showing—once only—what a character hears when another character speaks. So misspelling dialogue once could work—for the greatest impact, you’d probably want to do this the first time the viewpoint character heard the other character speak. And you typically want to mention that the character is pointing out what he heard.
When the proprietor opened his mouth, he said, “Gladya hera. None’s bin hera sense Joo-li.” Frowning, I pulled my earbuds out. He repeated his words, and that time I understood that I was his first customer since July.
Or you could simply have the character tell what he thought he heard without spelling the accent.
When I was introduced to Theo, I had trouble understanding what he said. Two days after he moved in, I thought he said that the boy downstairs flipped him the bird. What he actually said was that a boy had tripped going down some stairs and had flown into a wall, breaking his leg.
No Instant Experts
And keep in mind that a character who doesn’t speak a language foreign to him can’t report the dialogue of another character speaking that language. If your viewpoint character doesn’t speak Russian, he can’t report word for word the dialogue of another character who’s speaking Russian. If the viewpoint character can pick out a single word or two, it’s okay to let readers know that—Pierre was saying something about New York and airports as he spoke to his brother. But a viewpoint character who can’t understand a language can’t become an instant language savant and accurately report what he can’t understand. Exceptions for language experts who might be able to guess many of the words.
I hope I’ve given you at least one convincing reason to not misspell words to convey accent and solid reasons not to overplay accents and dialect in your stories.
An accent is just one component of a character, and there’s no reason to let it come across as the major definer of a character. As you wouldn’t continuously remind readers about a character’s blond hair or limp or lisp, you don’t need to constantly provide examples of an accent. Give readers a sense of how a character speaks if doing so is important for the revelation of the character or if that detail serves the story in some way, but don’t dwell on this one aspect of a character. Don’t overemphasize accents.