Tuesday, April 06, 2010


Accents are cool. They make people unique and have a complex history behind them. Many times they exist because the accented language is the speaker's second language. But how do you get that across in writing? Do you phonetically spell out everything the speaker is saying?

I've read a few books that do this well. The Redwall books, and Harry Potter. But these authors did it subtly and they didn't do it all the time with every character that had an accent. Jim Butcher, however, hasn't done that, and I haven't had ANY trouble imagining how his characters speak.

This came up because in the book I'm reading right now, the characters who speak "country" English (for this setting) do so in a way that feels unnatural. I've heard people speak the way she's tried to make them speak, and it just doesn't sound right. The reason, I believe, is that she does this with nearly every sentence of dialogue from these characters. It's not awful, but it is distracting. It pulls me so far out of the story that I can only read a few pages at a time before I have to put the book away.

That's also the reason I pulled all of the accents out of my story. When I read through the book on my first editing run, I realized RIGHT AWAY that it didn't sound natural, especially when I read it out loud.

My advice for anyone who wants accents in their writing: read it out loud, have someone else read it out loud, and make sure that you don't overdo it. A little bit will go a long way when you spell out the accent. And if it you don't want to spell everything phonetically, just do what Butcher (and many other successful authors) does: tell the writer that the character's accent came through like a shock, or softly, or whatever else get's the point across in a non-distracting way.

1 comment:

  1. Great topic Giles, thanks for sharing!

    I have a character in my WIP who is a Jamaican Rastafarian. His accent is thick. I'm pretty familiar with the accent in real life and know I can portray it accurately, but it is tough to decide how much is too much. This is the kind of thing I need a beta reader for.

    Shameless self promotion:

    If you have time please stop by, read and comment on my guest post for today over at Justine Dell's blog:


    It's an interesting topic that will hopefully spark some discussion.