Wednesday, January 22, 2014

{Ciao} How to Write Accents

When I started writing, I was rather pleased with myself if I managed enough creativity to give a character an accent, let alone actually make his accent believable. But now that I've written several novels and read many more, I am beginning to get a grasp of what a believable accent "sounds" like on the page. There are several things to think about when you decide to give a character an accent:

  • Their culture
  • Their education
  • Their grasp of the English language
  • Their personality


Taking a look at culture will help you decide what words to use; if you are giving your character a ghetto accent, obviously there will be certain terms you will use that a Southern, small-town white character wouldn't use. If you neglect the vocabulary aspect, though, a Southern small-towner and an inner-city street kid are going to sound pretty much the same one paper:
"I ain't gonna tell you what I was doing last night. Ain't none of your business."
That sentence right there could be applied to either character which means that you probably aren't paying close enough attention to the culture from which they come. Not that every sentence in every conversation has to be laden with cultural references, but if you are thinking that throwing "ain't" into a sentence will make your reader identify with a kid from the Bronx, you're probably not working hard enough. Look for words you can throw in that the Southern small-towner wouldn't recognize if you yelled it in his face. (I'm not talking about cuss-words here.) Look for works you can tweak to change the "accent" of the phrase. Let's take the ghetto case:
"I ain't goin'a tell you what I's doing last night! Ain't none a' your business, fool."
Of course you can go way over-board with this and start sounding like Mark Twain and I am not trying to pick on the African-American culture; I grew up in semi-ghetto areas and was surrounded by black, Filipino, and Hispanic friends. Culture is just as important when you're writing a Brit or an Irishman or a South African or an Asian or even a New Yorker. Pay attention. British people have pet-phrases that they use often, like preceding everything with "sorry," because they have a national fear of coming across as blatantly impolite. (What I love about Brits is that they can be passive-aggressive that way. Cracks me up.)


This is a simple category: ask yourself about your character's education and what kind of words they would use. Many people (I'm thinking Lena Lamont from Singing in the Rain) who might be successful but are not well-educated will stick with slang and oft-repeated phrases. ("Whaddya think I am? Dumb or sumthin'?" "Whaddya think you'll do? Fire me or sumthin'?") People who have a good education usually speak with more care...they use words most people don't think of, even if they aren't large words. Because of the breadth of their knowledge, they have more words at their beck; decide on how educated/uneducated your character is and go from there. A well-educated character in an unlikely place is quite effective, like Aibileene in The Help. She is one of my all-time favorite fictional characters and was self-educated, yet you could hear how smart she was even as she spoke inside her culture. In my novel, Anon, Sir, Anon, Dr. Breen, an old friend of Farnham's, is a well-educated man, yet his speech is a little rough by virtue of not being frequently subjected to Society & Women. He's full of gallantry and good-humor and is undoubtedly clever, but his word-choice would make a polished man twitch:

“My darling girl, are you tired of being roughed around like a heifer tugged to market?” Breen asked.
“I have heard it put in more eloquent words, but yes.”
“Hitherto you have been subjected to only the most uncouth bits of Whistlecreig: the fog, the mist, the damp, the cold, the bodies lying prostrate in fallow fields...shall we entertain her, Farnham?”

And it works because you can tell he's a country doctor who has a native sense of gentility but he's probably left his half-pound university words twenty-five years behind him.

//Grasp of the English Language//

It is fun to talk with foreign people and hear the way they construct their sentences. In fact, you can even hazard a guess from which country a person hails by how they structure their English. Other languages are much more sensible about things and I love to hear people (like my Romanian friends) speak because they often take the structure of their language and apply it to English words. I remember our dear, crazy Romanian friend, Cristi asking a group of strangers something in Romanian after we were trying to teach him "Ubbi-Dubbi" and when we inquired what it was he said, "I asked if they could speak birth-language." (Baby-talk) Another time when he swore he wouldn't make us laugh in the middle of church, our team-leader rolled her eyes and said, "Fat chance!" The look on Cristi's face was priceless and he said, "What are you calling me?!"

Still one more excellent (and funny) example of this is Gru from Despicable Me, who is a Russian:
"I have pins and needles that I am sitting on."
He takes a classic American phrase: "I'm sitting on pins and needles" and by saying it with a foreign construction, makes you hear the Russian accent, even on this blog. This is what you want to look and listen for while watching movies/speaking to foreign people. Also, if you know a second (third, fourth, fifth, etc.) language, consult it and see if you can lend a bit of exotic flavor to your dialog by reconstructing things! 


This is a good consideration for any character, but especially useful when you are writing a foreign character. Shy people will probably act like they can't speak English for some time but you will see them listening (and comprehending) and if you press hard and tactfully enough, they will suddenly out with rather flawless (if oddly precise) English. They will use short, mincing words and carefully chosen ones, as they will probably have translated a whole conversation in their heads and weighed all the words they know to carefully choose the right ones so as not to embarrass themselves.
Outgoing characters will probably zip through a conversation at a rapid rate (depending on which country they come from. Italians are good at stream-talking), sprinkling foreign phrases/words where they don't remember the English and assuming you will catch on to what they are saying via their facial expressions and context. Think about what personality-type your character has and whether they will be the precise, excellent type or the good-natured, chattering foreign national. Both are fun to talk to and paying heed to which your character is will help the reader understand the cultural accents you give to them.

What about you? Do you have any tips for writing accents that I have missed?

Also, I am being interviewed a However Improbable today! 


Rissi said...

Thanks for the post, Rachel! I'm reading a series by Rachel Hauck that is SO believable you can almost hear the hero speaking. I heart that and think it's amazing when an author gets it right. :)

Esther Brooksmith (wisdomcreates) said...

Good tips!

Candice said...

I enjoyed reading this, and these are some really good tips!

Jack said...

I tried writing accents once, but it kind of backfired on me. I will have to keep in mind your tips if I ever attempt it again.