8 Ways to Make Accents the Background, Not the Story

Sasin Tipchai for Pixabay

I get it. You have a character who is French but speaking in English. You have a character with a Scottish accent. You have a character from Russia. And you want to give the flavor of their accents to your reader, right?

Well… maybe.

Here’s the thing. Making your reader focus on a character’s accent can cause you to commit the worst writing sin of all: lifting your reader out of the story. Giving them a reason to stop reading.

I’m half-French, and several of my mysteries take place in Montréal, so I’m acutely aware of the need to give a flavor of the environment and the characters’ speech patterns. I want them to feel the “Frenchness” of the venue. But how do I do it?

Probably not like this: “I ‘ad to put zee ticket een zee machine.”

You probably had to read that out loud, right? To see what it sounded like? But… did you focus on the content of what my protagonist Martine might have been saying? Of course not. You were figuring out her accent.

Imagine, now, that every time Martine opens her mouth, that phonetic spelling is what comes out. Will you ever be able to follow the mystery? Seriously, I don’t think I’d be able to follow the mystery, and I’m the one writing it!

There’s another problem with this kind of dialogue: it’s not real. No matter how hard you try, unless you are French, you’re not going to sound French when you try Martine’s lines out loud. You’re going to sound like a caricature of a French-speaker. And caricature slips pretty seamlessly into stereotypical thinking and perception, into the worst kind of cliché. This is Martine LeDuc, not Pepe LePew.

There has to be a better way.

Fortunately, there is. There are ways to give your characters that je ne sais quoi and make them real and vibrant to your readers without taking the reader out of the story and without resorting to caricature.

Focus on what’s interesting

I spent a lot of time creating Martine. There are a lot of things about her that are interesting: she holds an important and unusual job, she copes with living in a city that is culturally and linguistically divided, she is a stepmother. The way she speaks — her accent — is not the most important or interesting thing about her. I don’t want readers coming away from her stories thinking about her accent, but about her life, her opinions, her adventures. What’s the solution? Keep the accent off the page, and keep the rest on it.

Give foreign phrases, not accents

One of the solutions I’ve used is to sprinkle snippets of French throughout Martine’s speech. (I can’t claim credit for this method: Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is constantly peppering his speech with little French phrases.) The trick here is twofold:

  • to provide just enough consistently to give a sense of the character’s culture and language without overwhelming the reader with too many foreign words.
  • to not immediately translate what you’ve written. (There’s nothing more tiresome than reading, “Je ne sais pas — I don’t know.”) Instead, use very short phrases that are immediately understandable by their context.

Narrate the accents

Another character in your story might notice someone’s accent and remark on it, either out loud or in their head. “His English was excellent, but deeply accented; it was clear which side of the city he was from.” Someone might notice a character tripping over a difficult pronunciation — this is one of the few moments where “show, don’t tell” should be reversed. “I was struggling a little with his thick Scottish accent, and that slowed my reaction.”

Drop contractions

One of the clearest giveaways that English isn’t a person’s first language, or that they’re new to it, is a lack of contractions in their speech. Simply replacing “I wouldn’t go,” with “I would not go” allows you to keep the flow of dialogue moving while still rendering the character’s essential differences of speech.

Check out grammatical structures

In French, auxiliary verbs do a lot of the heavy lifting, but they translate poorly. “Aller” means “to go,” so a French speaker might assume that the “to” and “go” are inseparable. “I must to go” might be the result. Russian works the opposite way: it infers auxiliary verbs from the sentence’s context, so that same “to” might disappear completely, leaving a character saying, “I go work tomorrow.” Before you go this route, however, make sure that you get the original language right; don’t rely on clichés about it. There’s nothing more insulting than seeing oneself caricatured on a page.

Explore alternate idioms

Idioms are subtle tells that indicate one’s background, both in time and geography. An older character will use different slang than will a twenty-something, and figuring out what those differences are can make your dialogue come alive and feel authentic. People often think that idioms can be translated (they can’t) and you can have some fun with this, having characters translate their idioms into English. In American English, one wishes to be a fly on the wall to eavesdrop; in French, it’s a spider under the table that gets the scoop.

Take advantage of commonly used words

When you’re creating a character, study where they’re from. A Yorkshire farmer says “aye” rather than yes; a Scottish doctor might note you have a wee temperature; an Irish painter might add “sure” at the end of a sentence. But I was serious when I said “study”: echoing what I said above, the worst thing you can do is make assumptions about language patterns based on others’ clichéd perceptions of that language. Make sure you get it right; make sure you don’t overdo it; make sure the expression doesn’t dominate the dialogue.

Show other traits

Honestly, relying on accents to show a character’s “otherness” is sheer laziness on the writer’s part. There are many ways to root a character in whatever it is you want to show — their backstory, their culture, their environment. Martine, for example, likes her food, and she’s forever finding excuses to eat poutine, which puts her squarely in Québec’s gastronomic culture. Showing the reader how much she likes this dish roots her in Montréal, but it also tells a lot about the character herself. Perhaps your character wears something that’s important to their home or work. American politicians tend to wear an American flag on their lapels. Other cultures find that curious. Finding that uniqueness about your character’s background and weaving it into their daily life will help capture who they are better than any weak accent ever will.

Kevin Gardner for Pixabay

In conclusion…

These are ways you can avoid the tedious phonetic spellings that mess up otherwise good writing and encourage readers to put the book down.

And looking at it from a wider perspective, the truth is, everyone has an accent. We’re not aware of our own most of the time, but there are many differences in the ways people speak — Californians don’t sound like residents of Georgia any more than a Brit sounds like they come from Sri Lanka. Calling out just one accent and not the others makes no sense.

I am a tremendous fan of Tana French’s books. They’re all firmly rooted in a sense of place — in Ireland. Sometimes this comes through in characters’ speech, but only in subtle ways: expressions, word order in a sentence, that sort of thing.

When I read French’s books, though, I’m not hearing the characters the same way she did when she wrote them. My English is of the American variety, and any word I read in English is going to come through my brain sounding American. I was particularly intrigued by one of her stories in which the Irish narrator is noting the accent of another Irish character, one who came from a less-privileged background, who grew up in the projects; his accent was somehow “dangerous.” I didn’t hear what that accent actually sounded like—but I got the idea clearly.

(As a side note, though, I was anxious to listen to the audiobook version of that particular novel, to listen to an Irish reader differentiate those accents. It was fascinating, but had nothing to do with my appreciation of the story.)

The bottom line: making accents the background and not the story itself is what will make for better stories, fresher characters, and a reader who won’t be able to put the book down.

Jeannette de Beauvoir helps writers develop their voices and those of their characters at JeannettedeBeauvoir.com.

Bestselling novelist of mystery and historical fiction. Writer, editor, & business storyteller at jeannettedebeauvoir.com.

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