Ten tips on writing characters with accents, by Rose Lerner

Rose LernerAnyone who’s read one of Rose Lerner’s novels (In for a Penny and A Lily Among Thorns) will know that her characters come from a wide range of backgrounds. Rose is a master at writing accents so a reader can hear her characters’ distinctive voices.

She’s very generously written this post on how she writes characters with different accents, and she’s giving away a copy of A Lily Among Thorns to one lucky commenter!

Hi everyone! Kat already wrote a great post about how I used accents in In for a Penny and a really awesome post on writing accents generally…I’ll try not to repeat myself, or her!

British people pay a lot of attention to accents. People from different regions and different social classes have marked differences in speech, and everyone is very conscious of that fact. Of course this is true in the States as well, but I really don’t think the degree is comparable.

I can think of several British memoirs off the top of my head that extensively discuss accents, either by referencing others’ accents by specific type or talking about the memoirist’s own accent (poor Roger Moore practically had a complex about not sounding posh enough!), and anyone remember that Monty Python sketch where no one can understand the rural accents and slang at the airfield?

So if, like me, you tend to write romances that have major characters from a variety of places and social classes, paying attention to accents is important. Here are a few guidelines and tips for how I do it:

1. I never write an accent phonetically.

Writing a particular word phonetically because its pronunciation is so different or it’s unique to a particular accent, okay. Writing all a character’s dialogue that way, no. Apart from being sometimes confusing for the reader, I’m going to come right out and say that I think this is rude.

Everybody has an accent. When my family moved from New York to Eugene, Oregon when I was 8, I was mercilessly made fun of for my accent. I distinctly remember thinking, “Whatever, ‘walk’ and ‘wok’ do NOT sound the same, and either do ‘Erin’ and ‘Aaron.’”

English isn’t a phonetic language. Absolutely nobody speaks in a way that directly represents the spelling of a word. When you choose to write one person’s accent as standard English and another person’s accent as phonetically spelled dialect, even if you don’t mean to, you are saying that the first person’s way of speaking is normal, while the other’s is not.

Think about whose accents are generally written as dialect in historical romance.

Unless it’s a sexy Highlander, it’s a poor person or a non-native English speaker. And a fair percentage of those times, it’s used for comic effect.

Hagrid

Enough said.

Which leads me to rule #2:

2. Accents have nothing to do with intelligence or temperament.

Yes, in Regency England, your accent probably said something about your level of formal education, since formal education emphasized “proper” elocution and exposed you to other people who spoke in a certain way. But lacking formal education—even, dare I say it, being illiterate—doesn’t mean a person’s personality or understanding of the world is any less deep or complex.

(A small side-rant: anyone see How to Train Your Dragon? Anyone want to explain to me why the bumbling, aggressive Viking adults all had comic-opera Scottish accents while their open-minded, identifiable-with children spoke like West Coast Americans?)

There are obviously class-based cultural differences in England (and differences between England and say, Italy or France) around how emotionally open it’s okay to be, how loudly it’s acceptable to speak, how personal a remark is too personal, and so on. But writing exaggerated accents sometimes seems to lead authors into writing characters with the same blithe inability to read social cues as Alicia Silverstone in Clueless.

Alicia Silverstone in Clueless
However, I think it would be a shame to lose the diversity and characterization that come from characters having distinct ways of speaking! So here are some ways to do that while still keeping it understated:

3. Let your point-of-view character tell the reader what kind of accent a new character has.

It’s a great way to enhance your narrator’s characterizaton—what accents do they notice, and how do they react? And it enables the reader to fill in the accent herself mentally if it adds to her reading experience.

4. Remember, there are variations in accents even among members of the same socio-economic or regional group.

Some non-native speakers lose their accents almost entirely, some speak with a thick accent after living in a new country for decades. Some New Yorkers tone down their accents when speaking to West Coasters, and some don’t think to or don’t bother.

5. People with accents speak differently depending on who they’re speaking to.

People with accents know they have accents. They also, probably, know how other people will judge them based on their accent. Most people’s accents will vary depending on the situation, how comfortable the person is, whether they’re upset, drunk, etc. Think about how differently you speak when talking to your friends, your mother, your co-workers, or a possible employer at a job interview.

Plus, people subconsciously mimic those around them. When I talk to my uncle on the phone, the long-gone traces of Brooklyn in my speech come back. They also surface when I’m being heavily sarcastic.

6. Rely on diction and grammar to convey the accent’s sound and feel.

If it helps, say the character’s lines out loud to yourself, and then transcribe what you’re saying. In A Lily Among Thorns, a number of characters speak with noticeable non-Oxbridge accents. I think the most fun to write was Sophy, Serena’s second-in-command at her hotel.

Sophy comes from a working class London background but has been working at a posh job for years. I imagine she covers up her accent much more when speaking to customers, but when talking to the hero and heroine (both of whom come from upper- or upper-middle-class families) she uses more colloquial diction and grammar than they do.

In one scene, she’s talking to Solomon about Serena’s constant fight to present herself as calm and in control of her surroundings so that she can be taken seriously as a businesswoman despite her scandalous past. “It’s not something she can just open and shut like the tap in a beer keg,” Sophy says. “And it don’t exactly go with melting into some man’s arms and begging him to kiss you.” Her way of talking (hopefully) comes across and adds to her characterization without overpowering the content of her dialogue or preventing her from being taken seriously.

7. Make sure any slang or foreign words are either unnecessary to following the action, clear from context, or decipherable by the reader.

One way to do this is use words that resemble other words. When my French spy, René, says “raisonnable,” you can guess it means “reasonable.” Or another character can clarify the meaning by their response. When René says “C’est la faute de qui?” and gets the reply, “It’s my fault,” you can guess that René was asking whose fault something was.

8. Be even more understated in narration than in dialogue.

When I wrote René’s POV scenes, I toned down his French-influenced grammar and mostly cut out foreign words. First of all, in large doses it’s distracting for the reader. Secondly, I’m inside his head. When the hero or heroine is listening to him speak, his speech stands out to them as different. But his own way of speaking is invisible to himself (heck, he’s probably thinking in French anyway), so I wanted it to feel a little more fluid and “natural” to the reader.

9. Be aware of contractions, but don’t overdo it.

Contractions are a great tool for conveying accents. First of all, non-native English speakers usually use them less than native ones, and the less comfortable they are with English, the less they’ll use them.

There’s also some class differences in British English about which contractions you use, I believe: “I haven’t” vs. “I’ve not,” “she’s not” vs. “she isn’t,” etc., but I don’t really understand the subtleties. If my subconscious does it naturally while I’m writing a character’s lines, great; otherwise, I don’t bother. If any of you can explain it to me, awesome!

10. In the interests of full disclosure, there is a character in my book who talks in spelled-out dialect.

His name is Antoine, and he’s the chef at Serena’s hotel. That’s because his accent is cheesy and fake. Serena explains: “He thought it was funny to copy René’s accent and pretend he was a snooty French chef. Antoine was cook in a gin shop before this.” Antoine comments: “It is true. Hélas, it was hard to reconcile myself to working in zat sordid pit of vice after my youth among ze lavender fields of Provence.”

I went back and forth on it, but I wanted to distinguish it from the other accents in the book. I think I’m happy with the effect in the end, especially since there’s an intense moment where he drops it altogether. Hopefully I avoided this:

Giveaway!

A Lily Among Thorns coverI’ll be giving away a copy of A Lily Among Thorns to one lucky commenter! Do you have any rules of your own? Is there an author you think breaks these rules, and makes it work? Do you have a favorite historical romance character with a strong non-Oxbridge accent? Tell me about it!

Leave a comment by Monday October 31 to enter!

38 Comments

Filed under Love your language, Writer's toolbox

38 responses to “Ten tips on writing characters with accents, by Rose Lerner

  1. Since my books are a fantasy world, and there’s only one character that would be able to identify the accents given on a fantasy world (given that he’s from a version of our earth) I try to keep away from accents specifically and mostly do voice and tone descriptions (i.e. ‘he spoke as if there were a cotton ball in his mouth’).

    There is one single character who has an extremely low-class accent – he cuts off and strings together a lot of words. I’m still not certain what to do with him, because though it tones down after he’s hung around the MCs for a bit, I don’t want to risk throwing the reader off.

  2. I love your insights here, and I loved Rene’s accent, both in and out of his POV. I have to confess, like your Antoine, one character in my January release speaks in spelled-out dialect. Since the scene is in the heroine’s first-person POV, her accent gets to be the norm by default; it’s the built-in snobbery of a regency viewpoint completely lacking in omniscience.

    • Thanks! Ooh, I don’t remember that scene. I’m so excited to read the book again!

      • Well, he only has three or four lines. I’d forgotten myself that he was in the story, but I was doing line edits for it this weekend. (Yay!)

        I love Antoine because I think fake French accents are the funniest fake accents of all–you know, Peter Sellers, Steve Martin, Dexter’s Laboratory. When I was in high school, my best friend and I went through a brief period in which, for some reason, we talked to each other exclusively in comic French accents, something lIke this: http://bit.ly/pGZb9Q
        I apologize to all genuine Francophones everywhere.

        • lol! I enjoy fake Oxbridge accents quite a bit too. But one of my all-time favorite Kids in the Hall sketches is the one where they’re French Canadian trappers, hunting businessmen for their suits. Hilarious accents!

          And yay for line edits!

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  4. Excellent advice. Word choices and other characters can do so much more to convey how your character speaks than trying to transcribe what it “sounds like”.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place

  5. Gemma McLuckie

    In the book I’m reading right now, Maile Meloy’s The Apothecary (a young adult novel), a California girl is newly relocated to post-WWII London. Her British characters are divided by class but Meloy avoids most accent issues by noting what American Janie thinks about them rather than writing it out. Janie is annoyed by a rich girl’s emphasis on Cali-FOR-nia, realizes a less-educated boy changes his accent to suit the situation, etc. I thought that was a clever way to introduce the concept to US young readers without getting bogged down in a “My Fair Lady” stew of accents.

  6. Jess Witkins

    I love this post! I started writing a book set in the south and was trying to create the various accents in the book, but I went about it all wrong. As your first suggestion implies, phonetic writing is rude and it’s also really difficult for the reader. I hadn’t even thought how it might look to a newcomer, I was just talking aloud in my room. Made so much more sense after a reader pointed it out to me. I appreciate your rules, especially using grammar and diction to imply the accent. Great example with your characters verbage and expressions. Loved it! Piqued my interest in the book just listening to it.

    Again, great rules, ones I’m taking to heart as I work on my book. Thanks for the help and advice!

    • Wow, thanks! I’m so glad it was helpful.

      Southern accents (black and white) definitely have a history of being dialected in US writing. (It’s also, maybe not coincidentally, one of the American accents that has a real stigma attached to it in many people’s eyes, which is a good reason to take extra care not to be hurtful in writing it.) But’s an easy trap to fall into, so good on you for thinking it over and trying something different! Good luck with the book–is it set in the modern South or is it a historical story?

      • I have read SO many botched attempts at Southern accents. (I’m Alabama born and bred, though my accent has almost disappeared after spending my adult life in the NE and NW. It magically returns on fall Saturdays when I watch SEC football, I’m told.) “Y’all” as a singular pronoun is a wallbanging offense all by itself for me. And OK, maybe Southerners tend to drop the “g” on “ing” words. But they don’t replace double-t’s with glottal stops or double-d’s to the same degree people do in the NE, and I’ve never seen anyone try to write THAT phonetically. (By the time I left Philly, I called pretty little kittens priddy li’l ki’uns. Which goes back to your point about how NO ONE speaks English the way it’s spelled.)

        Anyway, a big part of the reason I never give my characters phonetically spelled accents, not even the Highlanders among them, is I figure my ear for the nuances of British accents is probably no better than your average non-Southerner’s ear for how my own family speaks. I try to avoid Americanisms and write with the right rhythm for a British accent, but I feel like going much beyond that is asking for trouble.

  7. I can’t read Scottish hist rom any more. I lived in Scotland for a year and while they definitely speak a regional dialect of English, it didn’t make them sound like morons which most Scots hist rom dialects seem to do.

    • Katrina

      I totally agree with this, GrowlyCub. I have lots of Scottish friends and that’s one historical romance convention that really grates on me. It’s terribly difficult for a writer to do well, particularly writers who aren’t surrounded by the sound of Scottish accents (because there are many) every day.

    • I’ve never read many Scottish historical romances, so I don’t really have an opinion on this beyond a sort of general opposition to writing dialect. But what I DO have a really strong opinion on is how Scottish accents are used in movies and TV (cf. How to Train Your Dragon, above). Like as if just HAVING a Scottish accent is hilarious in and of itself. Apparently Mike Myers had done a bunch of Shrek’s dialogue already when he decided it would be funnier if he did it in a Scottish accent, so they had to go back and redo a bunch of the face animation. But why is that funny?

      It’s sad because I love real Scottish accents and I don’t understand why they only get to be used for weird comedy.

  8. I’m reading A Lily Among the Thorns right now (Mandi from Smexybooks and I had a Twitter conversation about it the other day) and loving it. Antoine’s accent is delightful and it totally works being slightly overstated. It is ze fake!

  9. Often I think in the accent of the character who’s speaking, but I don’t try to convey the actual accent in writing (or haven’t so far). Usually I use word choice and sentence structure to convey class differences, as well as forms of address.

    • Yeah, sometimes I find it helpful to say the character’s lines aloud if I’m having trouble…but the funny thing is, sometimes I’ll write a character using characteristic diction or whatever but in my head, they’re saying it all with an American accent. I guess it’s because in part, some of this stuff I learned from reading, not hearing.

  10. Kim

    Congratulations on your book. I think accents are especially important when a scene calls for characters from different countries. Sarah Maclean did a very good job on Juliana’s Italian accent in her recent Regency trilogy. Joanna Bourne writes historical romances about British and French spies that also requires different accents.

    • It’s interesting what we consider good/what works for us. I read a review by an Italian speaker who had many things to say about Juliana’s Italian ‘sound’.

    • Thanks! Yes, I absolutely love the way Joanna Bourne writes French accents and French narrators. It’s never obtrusive but it is so, so perfect. It’s probably my favorite thing about Spymaster’s Lady, so I’m really excited to read Justine in Black Hawk. Plus Adrian must have a characteristic way of talking with his unusual background. It’s going to be awesome!

  11. Maria D.

    Interesting post! I don’t really think about accents when I read a book unless the character says something that is completely outrageously wrong. I don’t have any fast and steady rules for dialogue though other than it be believable.

  12. Finally, someone who isn’t enthralled by How To Train Your Dragon! From the first scene it was father/son plot number 32, and it didn’t get any better. I do love dragons, so I end up watching it for the scenery.
    I also appreciate the use of contractions. In My Killer My Love, Mykhael has been in solitary confinement for 300 years, and at first his speech is very formal. He doesn’t start using contractions until he’s been exposed to more modern English. I felt giving him more formal speech would set him apart in the beginning.

    • The animation on the dragons was AMAZING, and that main dragon that moved like a kitten was ADORABLE. But everything else, I could have taken or left.

      Wow, that’s cool! What really interests me about that is that language is usually a tool for communication. Here’s a guy who’s only been communicating with himself for THREE HUNDRED YEARS. That must have been interesting to write.

  13. Marian Lanouette

    It drives me crazy when a character is written in dialect, it gets very confusing. Your way is so much better. Thank you for sharing. Marian

    • Thanks! I’ll give a sexy Highlander a pass if it’s done well and is easy to follow, but otherwise…I’m sure SOMEONE can pull it off but I haven’t run into them yet, I don’t think.

  14. There are only a select few who can really write accents. I suggest you not do it at all. Especially, cajuns. Stay away unless you are a cajun don’t try it. (including myself, who lives around cajuns)

    Dawn

    • This isn’t a writing question, but what did you think about the accents in The Princess and the Frog? I’m not familiar enough with the accents to have any opinion, and I wondered if they were done well.

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  16. Matti

    Sorry I came to this post late. It is FASCINATING. I’m usually blind to the subtleties of British accents, but I mostly picked up on the nuances you describe in Lily (and never had the slightest idea how much effort went into writing them that way — which shows how well you did it!).

    One line in your post stood out to me: “People with accents know they have accents.” Who doesn’t have an accent? This is something I’ve been thinking about; I used to read descriptions like “He spoke unaccented English” without blinking (and I’ve described myself that way), but I’m starting to conclude that doesn’t make sense in most of the contexts where it’s used. The fact that most of the people on TV sound a lot like me doesn’t mean my version is God’s Own English. (Also, when I lived in China, most of the native English speakers I interacted with were from the UK. I ran into a woman from NY a few months in and was a bit startled by how rapid, sharp, and almost abrasive her speech was. The punch line, of course, is that she and I shared pretty much the same Yankee accent.)

    That said, in the context where someone who *is* speaking Received English or whatever is talking to, say, Sophy, then I would guess that from the perspective of both characters in that time and place Sophy is the one who has the accent because she’s talking “wrong”. But if Sophy talks to René, they’re both likely to feel like René is the one with the accent because his is influenced by a foreign language. (Or so I would guess.) Obviously this has been on my mind, which is one reason I enjoyed your post so much!

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