It’s been a little while since I did a prose blip, so I thought I’d come around and do another one. This time, I want to focus on something that’s common, especially among newer writings, and something that’s also very difficult to pull off well.
Of course, I’m talking about accents.
Accents Done Poorly
A lot of times, people tend to think of accents as apostrophes. When someone has an accent, they must be speaking with their words shortened. Obviously.
Take, for example, younger me: some seven years ago, I thought it’d be cool to write a character with an accent. It wasn’t a huge role or an extended scene, but I gave this nationality a very distinct accent. It went (as much as I cringe to share it) something like this:
“Ah’right, mateys, let’s get this thing over with, sha’we? I’m yer cap’n, Cap’n Mevers, as you may call me, if’n you’ve ever a need ta speak to me. Which I doubts you might, but jus’ in case, that’s ma name. Don’t you go usin’ it too much, else it might get tired and I’ll have to find another one.” He waited, as if expecting someone to laugh. When no one did, he shrugged. “Here’s the deal. I bought ya, an’ at a fair price. The men is gonna be rowin’, the womenfolk be cookin’ till we git to where we’s goin’. After that… well, we’ll see. Some of’n ya’s gonna get sold ta someone else, some of yer is goin’ ta be dead. And the rest I’ll use ta row back here to git more slaves.”
I’m not telling what that’s from, nor will I ever bring to light again that from which I pulled it, but it serves as a good example: accents can be horrid to read.
While this particular example isn’t a struggle to decipher, it’s quite difficult to actually understand just by glance at it. There’s too much clutter.
One of the worst ways to write an accent is to write every single change in the words. Apostrophes can help, but they can also hinder. Changing the spelling of a word does get your accent across, but it makes it difficult to read. The most common mistake among writers of poor accents is that they try too hard to make the sounds of the accent pierce the page.
Here’s something interesting I’ve learned over the last seven years, which has made me a better writer of dialogue and accents: the best accents are those which neither cut nor change words.
The best accents I’ve ever read in novels and the accents which I’ve heard people talk about again and again as their favorites are written without extra apostrophes and without changing the spelling of words.
Fun side note: for excellent accents, see The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson. You will not be disappointed.
Am I saying that you should never write accents which use apostrophes?
I’m saying that it’s incredibly hard to write those kinds of accents. Southern drawls, accents that clip the ends off of words, and others can be very hard to read when written out exactly in the way that they sound.
I mean, look at movies like True Grit and No Country for Old Men. These are movies which have spoken accents in them, and sometimes it’s still hard to understand what’s being said. Accents can be difficult to understand when spoken, and even more so when written.
Well-written Accents: The Dialogue
So what then, do we do with the dialogue of a person with an accent? Do we just… drop the accent?
NO NO NO
Accents are wonderful writing tools that can bring to life minor characters. It gives depth in a way that few other things can in such a short amount of time. I can learn a lot about a character just by reading their dialogue and picking up on the kind of accent they have.
There must be some other way, then, to write accents without having to make the reader decipher all of it. Here’s what I’ve learned: word choice, more than word inflection, can impact the way an accent comes across to the reader.
That’s right. Using the correct words will make your accent come to life without having to change spelling willy-nilly.
When you consider your character’s dialogue and word choice, dig deep into who they are and where they come from. What sorts of words would they use? Which of these words are odd and unique to that place? Why? What makes their words and word choices stand out from other accents?
For instance: a kid from inner-city New York will use far different words than a kid from southern Kansas who spent all his life on a farm. I’m not trying to draw stereotypes here, but it’s the truth. You can expand this to fantasy as well: what would the illiterate farmer say that is different from the ancient wizard who’s used to speaking in the tongues of dragons and angels more than he is used to speaking the tongues of men and dwarves?
It takes a lot of work to perfect an accent this way. It means a lot of forethought, a lot of careful dialogue writing, and a lot of thoughtful editing afterward.
Well-written Accents: The Narrative
Dialogue, however, isn’t the only way to convey accent. You can (although it seems to have been, for some reason, frowned upon) also describe accents in dialogue tags and in the prose surrounding them.
If an accent is hard to write in dialogue, then don’t. Describe it in the narrative. Describe how your slave girl hisses her “R”s and her “S”s and how the rich man lolls on his vowels and draws them out. Let the prose paint the audible image of clipped sentences or murmured drawls. So much can be done with narrative, that a simple sentence can bring alive an accent that wouldn’t be apparent in regular dialogue without an insane amount of work that no one will be able to read and understand.
Now I realize you’re saying this: “but show not tell”.
Here’s the low-down: if you refuse to tell and instead choose to show, you may. However, showing can be just as much of a stumbling block as telling is. If you have to show me the accent through changing the spelling of words in the dialogue, you’re jerking me out of the story just as much as telling would. Probably more.
Scratch that: definitely more.
It is far better to tell something and have it be understood in completeness than to show something that makes no sense and confuses the reader.
Rather than focusing on some arbitrary rule like “don’t use passive verbs”, focus on creating a vibrant image in your readers’ minds. This image isn’t just visual.
If you have to tell, tell.
Write well, and your readers won’t even care if you tell them about your accents. Instead, they’ll simply hear the accent as they read the dialogue, and be content.