A fun way to enrich your story’s setting and make one character’s dialogue easily distinguishable from the next is to give your characters dialects or accents. Well, dialects and accents outside of standard English, ‘cause let’s face it, we all have accents.
However, writing a character with an accent can be tricky. You risk making your character’s dialogue hard to read, and sometimes you can make them look goofy. But fear not. This article will walk you through a few ways to show your character’s accent and dialect, without sacrificing readability.
One of the easiest ways to portray your character’s accent is to spell their words how they sound. Because it’s so easy to do, it can be tempting to rush in, pen swinging, and misspell every other word of your character’s dialogue. And sure, it’s fun to represent your character’s charming French accent this way, but it’s certainly not fun for your readers.
Take this quote from Huckleberry Finn:
"Well, den, dis is de way it look to me, Huck. Ef it wuz HIM dat 'uz bein' sot free, en one er de boys wuz to git shot, would he say, 'Go on en save me, nemmine 'bout a doctor f'r to save dis one?' Is dat like Mars Tom Sawyer? Would he say dat? You BET he wouldn't! WELL, den, is JIM gywne to say it? No, sah—I doan' budge a step out'n dis place 'dout a DOCTOR, not if it's forty year!"
Was that easy to read? Did it draw you into the world of Huckleberry Finn? I’m guessing you furrowed your brow and had to think about how to read each misspelled word. And your readers will do the exact same thing in your book. They’ll have to think so hard about how to read your character’s dialogue that they’ll be pulled right out of the story.
Readers aren’t looking for books that make them work. And if your dialogue makes them work, chances are they won’t want to read your story.
And readability aside, misspelling your character’s words can also be insensitive. It doesn’t make your character look especially smart, it can look like you’re mocking their accent, and it often relies on inaccurate stereotypes.
How would you feel if you invested a ton of time and effort into learning German, took some advanced German college classes, became fairly fluent, and then read a German novel where an American from Seattle, Washington spoke German in a heavy, Southern accent characterized by horrendous misspellings? You probably wouldn’t go crying to your mother, or spend a week binging The Office and eating mint chocolate-chip ice cream straight from the tub, but reading that probably wouldn’t feel great.
Lastly, if you haven’t noticed, a lot of English words aren’t spelled how they sound at all. Take the word “enough” for example. Or “gnat.” Or “colonel.” Why would you spell your character’s words the way they sound if English isn’t spelled how it sounds to begin with?
If spelling your character’s words how they sound is hard to read and can be insensitive, then how do you write accents?
Try relying on word choice
People from different places call things by different names. Americans say apartment, Brits say flat. Northwest Americans tend to say pop, Southwest Americans tend to say soda, and the folks down in Texas just call it all coke.
Different parts of the world also have different slang and swear words. Someone in Ireland might say that someone lacking in the intelligence department is “thick,” whereas someone from Texas would say “bless her heart.” Brits use the word “bloody” to swear, but Americans do not.
If your character is from Australia, try looking up what terms Australians use for things, as well as their slang, then write your character’s dialogue accordingly.
If your character is a native Russian speaker, he probably won’t go around saying things like “That’s just beating a dead horse,” or “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Rather, he’d use Russian idioms like “I will show you where lobsters spend the winter.”
Look up idioms from where your character lives and sprinkle them into his or her dialogue to add some fun flair.
Use common grammar errors
If you’ve tried learning another language before, you probably know that one of the hardest parts to master is the grammar. Having your character commit common grammar mistakes, that make sense with their native language, is a realistic way to show their speech habits.
You could have a native Spanish speaker use the wrong preposition sometimes.
“Your coat is on the closet.”
You could have a native French speaker put their adjectives after nouns when they’re too stressed to think their words over carefully.
“I like the dress pink.”
Just make sure that you have your characters make realistic errors. If your character is a native German speaker, do a little research into common English grammar mistakes Germans make. And for the sake of readability, don’t go overboard.
Just say that your character has an accent
A surefire way to let your readers know your character has an accent is to just tell them. Write your character’s dialogue in standard English, then add “he said in an Irish accent” afterwards.
This will let you avoid all of the problems of filling your character’s dialogue with misspellings, and it’s super easy.
Represent your character’s accent phonetically, but sparingly
If, after reading these ideas, you still really want to spell your character’s words how they sound, then go for it, but use a light hand.
Try reading the dialogue out loud to make sure it’s not too hard to understand. Ask a friend or two to read it and see if they can easily make out what’s being said.
Also, it’s good to be consistent. Don’t represent your Chinese character’s speech phonetically, but not give your Scottish character the same treatment. And make a list of which words you spell differently, and spell them the same every time.
Some advanced tips
If you’re writing a character with a certain dialect, it can be helpful to reference the rules of that dialect. Many dialects, such as African American English, have established grammar, and if you want to portray your character realistically, you’ll want to follow that grammar.
You can also make use of code switching. To put it simply, code switching is when someone switches to a different dialect or style. A character who speaks African American English with friends may switch to standard English when conversing with their college professor. Or a Mexican-American character might speak standard English at school, but switch to Spanglish when talking to his or her parents.
When writing characters with dialects and accents, it’s best to aim for readability and portraying your characters respectfully and accurately. Try showing your character’s regional background through word choice and idioms, and their language background through some common English-second-language mistakes.
Your character’s accent shouldn’t be so noticeable that it pulls your readers out of the story. Rather, aim to enrich your story world through giving your characters some fun speech mannerisms.
What are your strategies for writing characters with accents? Comment below!