Characters: Accents – Da ye use dem or na?
This post – if you can’t guess by the title – is going to be about characters and whether you should include accents in their dialogue or describe it in the narrative. I realize I’m sort of skipping ahead here. Sorry! First, you really should get the idea of the character written down. Then you need their back-story thought out – you know, so you can understand why they act the way they do and make them believable. Last, you would then come up with their unique quirks, which accents and such more or less fall under. But I’m never one to follow the norm. I sort of just go with my own flow. So I’m going to start with accents and mostly because I’m actually working on it for my own story…
I’ll go back to my question: Da ye use dem or na? (Do you use them or not?)
This is tricky to answer. You’ll find some publishers and authors who say will “absolutely not!” They will tell you it ruins the flow, knocking readers out of the story – which can be true. Or that the accent is discriminating against a certain group. And sometimes those stereotypes are bad. Like ‘Kiss de blimey stone’ or ‘Top ‘o da mornin’ ta ya’ or any other cliché phrase you can think of that’s usually associated with the Irish. I should point out – you won’t ever hear a real Irish speaker say that.
These are very valid arguments. Some people have accents because they are poor and don’t have the money to learn or never got the chance to learn. Worse accents can also be used as horrible comedic relief that exploits a certain racial group. Keeping in mind that sometimes the accent is important to the story, these publishers and authors will tell you to describe how it sounds in the narrative instead of phonetically writing it out in dialogue.
On the flip side, you have those who will tell you that if you hear your character talk differently in your head when writing them, then you should ‘show’ this in the dialogue and not ‘tell’ using the narrative. This is the same old show-us-the-story verses not tell-us-the-story argument. (Which I will have a nice big post on at some later point in time.) For now what they are basically saying is that you, the author, the narrative, the ‘tell’ is telling the readers how a certain character acts.
Below is an example of telling:
“Sussie-Q was a friendly girl. She was also a very happy person.”
‘Showing’, on the other hand, means that you give the readers a scene or scenario and the character acts out those same characteristics. You don’t come out and say it, the readers assume (and some would say feel) that through the characters own actions. Example:
“Sussie-Q walked down the street, an upbeat tune trilling the air through her pursed lips. Whenever she passed another she smiled, tipping her head in greeting.”
Eh… Not my best writing on the fly, but you should get the point. I’m not going to get into ‘telling’ verses ‘showing’ in this post and which is right or wrong (there really isn’t a right or wrong here), but that is essentially the heart of the issue of accents. Do you want to use the narrative and tell your readers the character has an accent? Or do you which to show them?
There’s the added issue of: What if the reader(s) have never heard that accent before? Sure, you can try to describe it and tell them it all you want, but it’s hard to imagine/hear something you’ve never heard before. Especially if you make up the accent yourself.
I’m personally of the opinion that if there is an accent you should use both methods. A sort of middle ground approach, if you will. Have some accent cues in the dialogue, but also use the narrative to help you out. There are things you should keep in mind, however, when deciding when to include phonetic sounds or how you go about doing it.
First: Everyone has an accent! Language isn’t a static thing. It morphs with time and even more so with distance between the speakers. That’s how you get Southern American Accents, or the New York Speakers.
Second: If your point of view for the story is first person, they usually don’t notice that they have an accent (unless that’s a character trait of theirs to worry about how others see them and focus on their accent). To them, the way they speak is normal. Those who speak differently than them, however, would be noticed.
Third: Instead of just relying on phonetic sounds, you should focus on diction and grammar. The ‘how’ they talk and put sentences together instead. Certain groups have a noticeable way of talking. A good example of this is Yoda from Star Wars “Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is.” This draws from old Germanic forms of talking. Whereas Irish is more flowing, with words that tend to have a higher tone at the end, and Scottish sounds more staccato and short. Rough and almost to the point.
Fourth (which ties in heavily with the third): Use some of the slang from the language or even some choice words. For my story I looked up a lot of Scottish/Irish phrases and curses (rather fun actually). Here’s my favorite. “Yer bum’s out ta windae” (You’re butt is out the window). Which basically means that you are talking rubbish. Of course, if I were to use this I would then have to use the reaction of other characters or the narrative to explain what that means, or give clues to its meaning. There are simpler ways to use slang, though. Like do they say yes differently? Some cultures don’t actually say yes or no. Sometimes it’s the little things you do that have the bigger impact.
Fifth: Don’t overdo it. If the flow is rough and jarring than you went overboard. I will always tell those I help to read their work out loud to themselves or even others. This is especially important for accents and dialogue!
I could probably go even further in depth on this, but then I would probably start getting all technical and repeating myself. At the bottom of this post will be links others who also talk about using accents. I strongly urge those trying to write accents to read them. If there are still questions or if anyone wants more on this topic just leave a comment and let me know. If it’s something more personal (like you want me to read a segment of your work) then email me at proseguru@gmail. I’m always willing to help! I will also be posting a helpful Accent Tools post with links to websites that can help you with slang and choosing phonetic spellings. ;D
Keep writing, everyone!
Ten Tips on Writing Characters with Accents: Rose Lerner – http://katlatham.com/2011/10/ten-tips-on-writing-characters-with-accents-by-rose-lerner/
The Uses and Abuses of Dialect “Y’all Be Sayin’ Wha?”: Lori Lake – http://www.justaboutwrite.com/A_Archive_Uses-Abuses-Dialect.html
Helpful Accent Websites: ProseGuru – https://proseguru.wordpress.com/2014/03/11/helpful-accent-websites/