Being a Better Writer: Accents

Hopefully this will be a short one. After the longer-than-average posts the last few weeks, I’d like to get a quicker, shorter Being a Better Writer post in so I can jump back to closing up Jungle once and for all!

Granted, every time I say that I end up writing a post that’s multiple times longer than I expected, so hopefully I’ve not jinxed myself here. But let’s get this underway. Let’s talk about accents.

Thankfully, I feel that I have a bit I can contribute on this topic, as it was a hotly contested one during one of my college English courses, with the classroom dividing into three sides (for, against, and non-determinate) on the issue. Granted, the non-determinate faction really doesn’t come into play here, except to let you know that there are those who don’t mind either way, but … Well, let’s back up. Why were there two groups?

Well, because there are two ways of handling accents in fiction. Well, writing in general, rather (you could do this in a non-fiction work as well). You can create an accent that is phonetic—as in, written out the way it sounds—or you can not do that and simply tell the reader what the accent is. Okay, and there’s technically a third option, which is to blend to two, but most consider that going the phonetic route either way.

Both of these, naturally, have strengths and drawbacks, so really, it’s up to you—and on a smaller scale, up to your audience—to decide which of these you prefer.

For example, I actually prefer to go the phonetic route—if you’ve read some of my work before, such as Dead Silver, you may have noticed this—though I do use only a light touch, just enough to shift the reader’s “voice” for the character over toward the accent. Why? Personally, I consider it a bit like Show VS Tell. Giving my reader a phonetic accent to read through is a bit like “showing” how the character speaks. The reader has to think for a second and “sound out” in their head how the individual speaking would sound, but then once they’ve made that connection, that character will carry the same “style” to their words every time the reader sees the phonetics come up.

Naturally, however, this doesn’t come without drawbacks, which is why I only do this lightly. For example, in Dead Silver, the character with the phonetic accent, Felix, doesn’t have a heavy phonetic accent. In fact, it’s pretty simple to read, and I made sure that the words used to emphasize this were easy to substitute and identify in the reader’s mind. Them became ’em, you’re became yer, and you became ya. Simple, easy-to-parse and understand, yet at the same time it painted a clear picture for the reader of when and where in the English lexicon his accent became most apparent. And then I threw in a bit of “tell” with commentary from Hawke to cement things.

There’s a catch here, though. That “simple and easy to parse” bit? That’s exactly why there’s an audience that doesn’t enjoy reading a story with phonetic accents. Sure, it’s easy enough for the brain to parse “yer” as “you’re” right in context, but that’s a pretty easy substitution to make, and off-times other accents aren’t so easy for a reader to read, or even understand, when written phonetically.

For example, take this bit of text (from the web-comic Tales of the Questor) and read through it. See what happens when you hit the phonetic accent:

(Internal Dialogue):Heck with it all. I’m taking the day and going fishing. At least I can put meat on the table this way.

(Arriving client): Wurrup fra min, misser! Wurrup, gorn ye!

Right, you make it through that? Sure, you probably did. But how long did it take you? And how certain are you that you read it properly?

That’s the downside to phonetic accents. While it can be a great way of “showing” an audience exactly how a character sounds, at the same time it can be a sudden “road block” to the reader’s process that tugs them out of the narrative, booting them from the “zone” and reminding them “Hey, you’re reading a book!” as they struggle to make sense of what a character is saying.

Meanwhile, on the opposing side of things, someone who’s simply telling a reader about a character’s accent, such as the heavy accent of the example given above, gets to skip all that uncertainty by simply saying “They had a thick, heavy accent that slurred their words, the kind that reminded me of a wet fog” (or something similar) and then moving on. No stopping to try and figure out what a character was saying by sounding it out (which can happen with thick phonetic accents). The reader just reads the description, applies the filter mentally (whatever that may be, more on that in a moment) and moves on. Quick, easy, simple.

Of course, as mentioned this approach has drawbacks as well. It’s not perfect. For starters, you are simply telling the reader what the accent is, not showing them. Which means that the character’s actual dialogue looks just like anyone else’s, even if you’re capturing the spoken idiosyncrasies of their accent (such as word use or colloquialism, which you should be). It’ll simply be plain English (or, you know, whatever language you write in, bilingual reader!), which means that you’ll likely have to keep telling your readers what the accent is in order to remind them. Otherwise they’ll forget, and an aspect of your character can slip away.

Granted, using colloquialism and a particular speaking style, even with plain, non-phonetic English, can still say a lot, but it’s a risk all the same.

But there’s another possible drawback to simply telling the reader what their accent is, even if you describe it: They may get that accent wrong. Like, 100% wrong. You might tell the reader that a character is speaking with an Irish accent, but the reader might be thinking of Scottish, or worse, something completely off the bend from it like Jamaican. Which won’t mean much when they’re reading your book, as it’ll all be internal, but once they listen to an audiobook, or talk about it with someone else, or see a film/screen adaptation?

Okay, that last one is reaching, but it’s still a bit of a risk. When you tell a reader what the accent is, you’re simply calling on them to remember it and fill everything in on their own, rather than giving them indicators for it.

Granted, I’ve done both in my work. For example, I’ve gone phonetic—though lightly—with characters like Felix, but I’ve also simply told the reader what an accent sounded like, though only in descriptive terms (partially because in each case, it was an accent that didn’t exist on Earth, being Sci-Fi, and so I would note what the inflections sounded like or where emphasis for specific words landed). Really, it comes down to your choice and what you feel will work with your story.

Actually, there’s one other thing you need to think about, too. Your audience.

That class I mentioned earlier? Where this debate raged for some time? There were readers in there who declared that no matter how much they liked a book, it was going to be put down the moment they saw a phonetic accent. There were others who agreed that it was all right as long as it wasn’t too hard to read. And then there were those who didn’t mind at all, who were perfectly willing to plow through an absolute molasses of an accent as long as they could figure it out and the story was good.

Moral of the story? You can’t make everyone perfectly happy, but what method you choose to take with writing out your accents is going to win and lose certain readers. Again, this comes back (as so many things with writing do) to knowing your audience and what they enjoy spending money on, and then writing that thing.

Right, enough said. Let’s recap!

With accents, you have a sliding scale similar to Show VS Tell. You can show an accent by writing it out phonetically, or as it sounds. This gives the reader the obvious course of reading it as it sounds … but also can prove to be a stopping point that brings your audience to a halt if the meaning is too hard to decipher.

You can also simply tell them what the accent it. On the plus side, it’s fairly quick, and carries little chance of slowing a reader. The words are all the same, so they can buzz through quickly. However, it also carries the risk of the reader not envisioning an accent at all, or worse, forgetting that one was supposed to exist without reinforcement.

Lastly, you can mix the two a little, or go varying degrees one way or another as the situation requires. Again, a lot of this is up to knowing what your audience will be comfortable with … but don’t forget your own vision for things.

That’s all there is to it! So, as usual, good luck!

Now get writing!

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3 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Accents

  1. I think I’m essentially in the same boat as you on this one. In my writing, I only use light phonetics on the order of dropping a g on and -ing word or the classic “them to ’em”, but hardly anything past that. At least in my opinion, when a character’s dialogue gets put through the blender to show an accent, it instantly makes me associate them with incompetence.

    Probably the most grating phonetic dialogue I ever read was in “The Yearling”. Pretty much every character in that book spoke like their mouth was full of maple syrup.


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