Jul 15 2008
Just because a character has an accent doesn’t mean he has to ruin all of his scenes. This article describes how to keep your characters from sounding like Hagrid.
I have three main models for writing characters with a foreign accent: Hagrid (despicable), Tom Clancy villains (acceptable) and Joe Kavalier (delightful).
Hagrid’s lines are so painful that every one is like a car accident. They’re so hard to read that they interrupt the story and distract readers from the lines that don’t look like a car wreck. They also make readers hate the character.
Tom Clancy has a much more subdued style to bad accents, which is a lot easier to read. His villains usually speak in standard English but will occasionally toss in a foreign word (frequently “gaijin,” “hombre” or “mujahedeen”). Although your readers may wonder what a “gaijin” is, it’s generally much easier to read than Hagrid.
Finally, we have Kav from “Kavalier and Clay.” In the first few pages, he uses phrases like the following:
- “Ash-holder” and “ash-can” instead of the more conventional “ashtray.”
- “I find I have smoked all my cigarettes.”
- “Sadly, I am obligated to leave behind all of my work in Prague, but I can very quickly do much more that will be frightfully good.”
I think these are excellent because the character simultaneously sounds different and comprehensible. His speech comes across as unusual more than foreign.