Monday, July 5, 2010

"You Say Potato..."


Do you write them or leave them to your reader's imagination?

Is it necessary to write: "Excuse-moi, monsieur, but I am looking for the oh-so-charming Madmoiselle" if you have a Frenchman looking for his new love interest? Does he need to talk about her 'leetle shoes'? Does your Englishman have to sound like " 'ere, 'ere, guv'ner, tike yur boots off an' set yurself down hal' a mo'?"

I confess I have not done this, and my reasons are two-fold. Firstly, as a reader, I hate fighting through accents when the writer has put it all down phonetically. I can hear the accent in my head, I don't need it written down. Secondly, as a writer, I find I can give the impression of the accent through vocabulary choices and rhythms, if this is necessary.

For instance: A North American: Sidewalk
English: Pavement
North American: Bag of potato chips
English: Bag of crisps

There are regional vocabularies all over the world. I find using these words a far better indicator of the character's voice then plastering every word with an accent.

Tell me how you handle this situation. I'd be curious to know.

Y'all come back now, y'hear?

SPECIAL NOTE: Tomorrow, I've got a guest post spot over at Terry's Place,
writer Terry Odell's wonderful blog. Please drop by and say hi!


  1. Elspeth - Oh, I find accents, dialect and other language questions so fascinating! Probably it's my linguist background. I agree with you wholeheartedly that it's far more productive to give a character a regional identity through vocabulary than it is through accent. The reader may, indeed, be distracted if one writes "using an accent," and lose the thread of the story. It can sound contrived, too, and not authentic.

    When I write, I don't use accent, although I do use varied constructions. For instance, in my WIP, one of the minor characters is an urban child who doesn't have a lot of formal education. I do not write this character in dialect, but at one point the character says, "Mr. ____, he's not here today.". That's not a standard American English construction, but it is authentic for this character. A tiny example, but hopefully it shows what I mean.

  2. It depends on the character and the piece of dialogue. I usually reduce it to small words ("y'all" if the character is southern; "wicked" if from New England, etc.) just to get the feel of the character and the voice.

    It also depends on purpose. I have one little piece of dialogue w/ an EMT in my current novel who has a thick NC accent, and I spelled it phonetically to slow the voice down, which I wanted.

    I'm thinking about a main character w. an English accent for my next novel. In that case, I woudn't go phonetic for the reasons you stated.

  3. I've got a Scot in my novel, and I write a few of her accents consistently. Ones that aren't difficult, just so the reader gets the idea. Such as my MCs name Jane, become 'Jairn', you becomes 'ye'.

    I also have a guy with a listhp. I write that out too :o) Hehe, but the difficult part is when he says 'sit' (sthit) and it becomes quite comic when one really needs to be sympathising with him. LOL

  4. I'm with you on less is more. I prefer to let another character hear the accent and think about it. For example--here, the character is hiding and can't see who's speaking. This is what she hears: “Well, what do we have here? You want to come on out, darlin’?” The voice was deep, warm, and decidedly Texan.

    (He does use the term darlin' a lot, but that's about as far as I go with his accent.

    Likewise, his Aussie partner uses some terminology that's 'native' but I also try to make sure it's clear in context.

  5. Margot; We seem to approach this in the same way, which is a huge relief for me! I agree that vocabulary choices and sentence construction are vital tools in writing a character's voice.

    Elisa; How interesting - writing phonetically in order to slow the voice down - I'd never thought how effective that would be. Aren't you clever? (of course, I know you are) I would think, with a peripheral character this would be a highly successful choice.

    AA; I've read many books with Scottish characters and am quite used to reading 'ye' for you, etc. I must admit, however, I don't think I'd ever attempt to write a character with a lisp. You're very brave.

  6. I haven't really dealt with this in my own writing. I am quite terrible with accents, so to try to write them out would be a very bad idea indeed. And I suppose this is a general rule: if you know what you are doing, you can use accents, but never, ever try to do it if you aren't absolutely sure you've got them right.

    As a reader, though, I usually don't mind, unless there are accents cluttering the dialogue all the time (the main character probably shouldn't have too much of an accent), or if the accent is really heavy. Hagrid in Harry Potter is fine, but any more than that will just make me confused.

  7. Terry; I try to use 'less is more' in almost every aspect of my writing - which means I use it more rather than less...oh dear. I can certainly hear that Texan voice by the way you wrote that line.

    Cruella; I think you've hit on a very important point - unless you really know what you're doing, steer clear of writing accents. They can be tricky creatures - but vocabulary choices do a great deal to make the voice clearer.

  8. I read a book where an important character was from the mountains. She slipped into a heavy accent to disguise her undercover work. One small paragraph was enough and very difficult to read. She remained in this tone for the whole 400+ pages.
    It was unnecessary and unbelievable since back story showed she graduated top of her class from the Coast Guard Academy and held a high government position.
    Just show me what the character is and let my mind do the rest.

  9. I do it like you do. I sometimes let the listener comment on some particular sound or aspect of the accent and go on from there.

  10. Mary; I would find that very, very annoying, unless it was handled extremely skillfully.

    Carol; That's a good way to demonstrate it, isn't it? Let the listener comment on the accent - whether it's pleasing to the ear, or undecipherable. After all, most readers know what these accents sound like.

  11. What a great post! I think it's important to really think about this and what would be good for a reader! I don't think it's necessary to always use the difficult form of writing to showcase what language it is, sometimes it's easier to keep it simple!

    Your blog is cute!!

  12. I like hearing accents! Languages are fascinating. I don't like when they're written, though, unless it's minimal. It's too distracting. I can hear the accent in my head, and it gets annoying trying to decipher a heavily written accent.

  13. Jen; Thanks so much for your kind word and I agree; it's easier to keep it simple.

    Laura; I can hear the accent in my head as well - and I enjoy letting readers know a character has an accent without being too heavy-handed with it.

  14. yep, give them the edge of the accent and let the reader take it from there...I do like using the sorts of words the protagonist might use whether it is a culture of language or work culture... but never hit your reader over the head with it. A soupcon is all that is needed not a leedle or beeg ladle.

  15. You can also indicate a non-native English speaker by having them not use contractions.

    Straight From Hel

  16. Jan; Exactly. Give me the soupcon over the beeg ladle everytime. I think the background in theatre really helps.

    Helen; Back in the era of my books, there were far less contractions used to begin with - a far more formal time altogether.

  17. I dislike trying to decipher accents and prefer a few well-phrased sentences that let me know a character speaks with a particular dialect.

  18. I concentrate on dialect through vocabulary...and sometimes even that gets edited out. :) We call shopping carts "buggies" here, but one editor wasn't happy about that word.

    If I dropped one end consonant, I'd have to drop a trillion of them--and that would get annoying quickly, I think. Plus, Southerners speak in such a peculiar way that it would look like a mess on the page if I tried to duplicate it. :)

  19. It depends. If it's not too distracting, I like to add a bit but mostly write in the dialog "he said with a strong Texan accent."


  20. Accents are too hard to read and write. I prefer to use some signature phrases (not often - it gets to be too much) and specialized vocabulary. I'm hoping it works. :)

  21. It is a tricky one. I hear the accents in my head when my characters are talking, but most of the time, I ignore it while writing. I prefer to show the regional variations by the sentence construction- people from various parts of the country, speak English in very different ways, grammatically.

    Another great post. Thank you.


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