Jul 15 2008

Writing Tip of the Day: Avoid Bad Accents

Published by at 10:51 am under Voice,Writing Articles

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.

24 responses so far

24 Responses to “Writing Tip of the Day: Avoid Bad Accents”

  1. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 18 Nov 2008 at 5:32 pm

    I haven’t read the Harry Potter books. What does Hagrid talk like? Does he skip letters or something? Like “Allo, ‘arry. Nice t’ see ya today”?

  2. Anonymouson 20 Mar 2009 at 9:35 pm

    Yup, TRW. Something just like that, actually.

  3. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 20 Mar 2009 at 10:51 pm

    Ugh, sounds a bit painful to read. It’d be easier to say he just has whatever accent he has and let the reader imagine the letter skipping.

  4. Scorpion Kingon 30 Mar 2009 at 9:36 pm

    Phonetic accents are fun!

    Look at the Jagermonsters in “Girl Genius.” I will agree Hagrid’s dialogue is a pain in the ass to read, but it’s mainly because no one sounds like that.

    Or Gambit. Who can say they don’t love reading through his Yat?

  5. Sandmanon 05 Jun 2009 at 9:50 am

    One thing that I’ve found is that Irish accents are generally very poorly done. I am Irish, I’ve lived in Ireland all my life and I can tell you most of the films or stories I’ve seen based in Ireland sound like actual Irish people, especially the teenagers.
    So lets start a list of slang and phrases for countries.
    “Story bud” pronounced “Starry bud”.General greeting, mostly used by skangers.
    “The banter was ninety per cent” or a varying number. Means how good and interesting a party was
    “DMC” Deep Meaningfull Conversation
    “Mitch” to skip school
    “Meeting” tongue kissing, or a non-serious relationship
    “Fag” cigarette
    “Locked” drunk. Also “off his face” or “off his head”

  6. Luna Jamniaon 16 Oct 2009 at 10:12 am

    I haven’t read the Harry Potter books but I’d say Redwall’s molespeech is far harder to read and understand than Hagrid’s accent, from the example Whovian gave and A. confirmed. ^^

    But I happen to like/understand molespeech, too. It’s kinda cute. And if I remember correctly, the hares have their own accents too.

  7. Dan D.on 07 Mar 2010 at 7:53 am

    Unfortunately, calling easy to read accents “good” and difficult to read accents “bad” can’t help but come off as elitist. “Pip pip cheerio” accents will always be easier to read than others, like in Their Eyes Were Watching God or Trainspotting or Wuthering Heights. Most writers will “lighten” a character’s way of speaking, which mainstream culture appreciates, but anyone actually familiar with the way of speaking will just feel it’s inaccurate or even insulting, as if the writer didn’t put much work into it, or was using it just to get some kind of cred. Improperly handling accents make the writer and the people who believe in them seem ignorant of how people really speak and get along in the world. And honestly, if you don’t like a character because you can’t read their dialogue, then that’s all the more reason it needs to be done–grow up.

    And technically, Harry Potter are British books. Would they have a problem with Hagrid’s accent? And I think most readers with some reading behind them wouldn’t have a problem acclimating, I haven’t heard too many children complaining. Some say leave it to the readers imagination, but let’s be honest, if you want them to speak “clearly” you aren’t going to actually imagine anything. And would you even know how to imagine it anyway? It’s the old show vs tell rule. The way people speak says a lot about them. Accents are a way of “showing.” If you “tell” it, most readers may not know what you mean or how to even construct it in their minds.

    Ultimately, it is up to the writer of course. However, speaking generally, the great writers, who write the masterpieces, and the works that are remembered, show their accents. However, in terms of more commercialized fiction, I can understand the impulse to simplify–although some harsher critics may say “dumb down”–an accent. However, it does say something about society.

    Normally, I really like this site. I rarely comment but I read regularly. I do find this site does gear more towards the overly-conventional at times, but I get it because it’s about genre fiction. However, this particular post is too underdeveloped and needs to consider the larger discussion around accents and dialects to frame it’s claims. People speak the way the speak, what does it mean when you believe literature should compromise that in certain situations? With this element of craft more than others, there are some cultural and social considerations.

  8. B. Macon 07 Mar 2010 at 8:30 am

    Thanks for your comment! I’m not sure if this helps, but here are some of my thoughts on accents and realism.

    “Most writers will “lighten” a character’s way of speaking, which mainstream culture appreciates, but anyone actually familiar with the way of speaking will just feel it’s inaccurate or even insulting, as if the writer didn’t put much work into it, or was using it just to get some kind of cred.”

    I think realism is often superseded by other considerations (such as drama, readability, reader ease, possibly the needs of the plot, etc). For example, a fictional character (regardless of accent) will usually have his chatting stripped away and his dialogue probably won’t have too many niceties, even though very much real-life dialogue is pointless chatter. In most cases, it wouldn’t work well for two friends to ramble on about last night’s episode of Gilmore Girls or tomorrow’s Cowboys game, even though many people do in real life, because it probably doesn’t add to the reading experience or advance the plot. (Unless the characters being football fans is an integral part of the plot or their character development?) … I think that most publishers would hold accents and dialects to the same dramatic standards. To the extent that real life gets in the way of what they think is a good story, they will probably amend it.

    So, umm, if a hard-to-read accent is a critical part of the story, go for it. However, you may want to think about how that will play with readers and editors. Editors at medium and large publishers, when picking stories, have to wonder about which ones will sell 10,000+ copies. All other things being equal, I think that a hard-to-read accent will make it harder to get there, which will increase the odds of rejection. Also, I assume that editors are more likely to pass on a story if the accents make it hard for them to comprehend the story. In a world where 99%+ of manuscripts get axed (closer to 99.9% at large publishers), it doesn’t take much to cause a rejection, sadly.

    The bigger prize, and one I should definitely think more about, is how to do accents that are both authentic and easy-to-read. I feel Michael Chabon and EB White are particularly good at accomplishing both. However, if an editor has to pick between the two, I assume that the grim economics of the publishing industry would push him or her to take easy-to-read most of the time.

    PS: I think the mad scramble for the “median” audience member is even worse in Hollywood. Maybe that’s why Gambit’s faux-Louisianan accent is always atrocious? I doubt it’s because they lacked the money for a real speech coach that actually knew how to get it right.

  9. Dan D.on 08 Mar 2010 at 7:12 pm

    I generally agree. Economics and social biases overlap but for different reasons. Do publisher’s not publish more gay fiction because they are homophobic, or because it doesn’t sell? I’d argue the latter, but most activist would claim the former. Same goes for a lot of biases seen in Hollywood. But to what extent does commercial art have to reconcile giving the people what they want and playing some part in moving the culture forward? If the industry believes in diversity, shouldn’t take some more risks to support that end?

    You’re right, dialogue in fiction usually is never 100% realistic–as you said, we keep dialogue from seeming too chatty by paring it down–but when is too much too much? When does it go from general craft to biased convention? And how do you gain the approval of the group who has the accent while still keeping it accessible to a general audience? The bias is created because some accents will not be altered while others will be, and if we are going to be honest, it will probably be the accents of lower income groups that are most edited. None of these questions are meant to be answered, and no answer is intentionally applied. It’s just something writer’s may find themselves considering, and will have to reconcile, as they navigate the publishing world.

    This is partly interesting to me, because I’m working on a novel with an African-American character who speaks often in contractions, sometimes ungrammatically, and softens the endings of some words. The other African American’s in my workshop seemed highly improving, but my white male professor found the use of language “farcical,” which led to one of the black students making a very eloquent rebuttal. You can’t please everyone, but who is it important to please?

    Thanks for the reply, back to the writing.

  10. Christina 45on 08 Mar 2010 at 7:33 pm

    Hmm… been wondering about something as of late…

    My characters are from Albany, New York. I don’t know why I chose there, as it’s nowhere near where I live. :/ But somehow they’re from Albany. Would I have to throw in a New York accent into the writing? How would I portray that? Do people from Albany even have the same accent as those from NYC? I only know one person who’s actually FROM NYC, and she’s got a strong accent, but I have no idea if that’s the whole state or just the city… I’m not sure if an accent is even neccesary, or if that would just annoy readers, however.

    I know, I’m probably stupid for not knowing any of that, but I’m from the south and was making my chars say ‘y’all’ this whole time till I realized it… XD

  11. B. Macon 08 Mar 2010 at 9:49 pm

    Hello, Christina!

    Having never been to Albany (or any of NY, for that matter), I’d like to refer you to one of Urban Dictionary’s entries on Upstate New York.

    Also, we ALWAYS have to say that we are from “Upstate New York”, rather than just say “New York” when we are visiting other areas, because EVERYONE thinks that all of new york state is like NYC, and they ALWAYS ask “why don’t you have the accent.” Holy crap, people in upstate new york don’t have that idiotic “new yawk” accent, we speak normal. AND LONG ISLAND IS NOT PART OF UPSTATE NEW YORK, WHATEVER DUMB **** THOUGHT THAT UP NEEDS TO LOOK AT A DAMN MAP!

    Yeah! So my guess is that your friend from NYC would maybe not be the best linguistic reference for Albany. Just a guess! 🙂

    I would definitely recommend cutting down the Southern expressions, though. I’m a Midwesterner that gets some weird looks when I say “y’all.” I’ve also been typecast out of phrases like “I’m gonna cap you Southside,” which made it difficult for me to do a reading of Thug Life. Perhaps it’s the glasses?

  12. Herojockon 06 Jun 2010 at 9:11 am

    My story is set in London but with the European Union in the background. For example the hero works for a fictional European Broadcasting Channel and often visits other European cities. We have 27 countries in the union!. I can just about get my head around the various British accents. The thought of having to write the different European nation’s accents, let alone their regional differences is giving me an nightmare. I am screwed 😛

    So my remedy is, its in the near distant future where the EU has made English the official language. Or am I just taking too much liberties here? lol 😉

  13. B. Macon 06 Jun 2010 at 10:39 am

    “its in the near distant future where the EU has made English the official language. Or am I just taking too much liberties here? lol 😉 ” If it’s in the near-distant future, maybe he has a translator device. Alternately–bearing in mind that I’ve never been to Europe–it strikes me as sort of plausible that a lot of people involved in international affairs/business there would be fluent in English. If his broadcasting channel works primarily in English, when he asks for an interview with somebody from a particular organization, it would make sense that they usually provide him somebody that can speak in English. (Or at least a translator). Or maybe he himself is a linguistic savant.

    If the solution is that the EU has made English the (only) official language and everybody speaks it, I think it would help to provide some backstory along the lines of “at some point, the UK pretty much took over the EU and bitchslapped everybody else.” Maybe around the point that the euro dissolved and everybody went on sterling. 😉

  14. Cassandraon 25 Jul 2010 at 7:40 pm

    A few of my people have British accents–which I’m trying to make sound more realistic–but I find it fairly easy to downplay the accent while still making it evident that they’re British.

    However, I do have an issue with one of my characters who grew up on the streets, and as such, has poor English. How do I write out his character without making it sound too incredibly prejudiced? I have a fairly good ear for Ebonics being that there are many people in my family who speak as such. But since it makes me cringe to hear it and also makes me cringe to write it, it wouldn’t surprise me if readers would cringe to read it.

    Hmm . . . I’m not really sure what exactly I’m asking. I suppose whether I should show the way he speaks or completely forgo that part of his personality.

  15. B. Macon 25 Jul 2010 at 7:53 pm

    I thought that the Boondocks (esp. season 3) and The Wire (all 5 seasons) did a really good job balancing authencity with ease of understanding for standard English speakers.

    I think it helps that the two shows treat its dialected speakers respectfully. For one thing, they’re not dumb, nor are the dialects meant to show how dumb they are. Indeed, several of the cops in The Wire note how much more professionally the gangs are run than their own department.

    I sort of cringe when an accent is used for comedic value. It’s rarely as funny as the author thinks it is. “Me-sah Jah-Jah Binks!” When readers are praying that the character meets an untimely demise, the accent has definitely been taken too far in a wrong direction.

    Also, I like it more when authors play with word choice and sentence structure rather than spelling (such as replacing dropping G’s, so that words like slamming turn into slammin’ or fool –> foo’). I find that to be an intrusive and usually unnecessary reminder that the character isn’t pronouncing the syllables the same way a news broadcaster would. When somebody threatens to cap a fool Westside, I don’t really need something distracting like fool –> foo to figure that out.

  16. Cassandraon 25 Jul 2010 at 8:07 pm

    I agree with not changing the spelling in words. And I don’t like writing out vernacular, because I hate reading books like that (one of the reasons I could never get through “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”)

    I think I’m going to play around with his word choice though.

  17. Newton 20 Apr 2011 at 1:36 pm

    Dan D: ““Pip pip cheerio” accents will always be easier to read than others, like in Their Eyes Were Watching God or Trainspotting or Wuthering Heights.”

    Were you referring to the ‘posh’ accents in Wuthering Heights or the Yorkshire accents? I have to read WH for school, and I literally cannot understand the servant who speaks in a Yorkshire (I think it’s suppose to be Yorkshire) accent. Here’s a sample:

    “One on ’em’s a’most getten his finger cut off wi’ hauding t’other froo’ sticking hisseln loike a cawlf. That’s masiter, yah knaw, ut’s soa up uh going tuh t’grand ‘sizes. He’s noan feard uh t’ Bench uh judges … then, t’ fooil gangs banning un’ raving tuh his cham’er, makking dacent fowks dig thur fingers i’ thur lugs fur varry shaume; un’ the knave, wah, he can cahnt his …”

    It’s just like WHAT?! I don’t even bother reading the passages when I come to them (though fortunately there aren’t too many!). 😛

    Anyway, got that out my system now. 😀

    Newt 🙂

  18. Contra Gloveon 20 Apr 2011 at 2:15 pm

    I’ve wrestled with this problem somewhat. The characters in my story are transplanted Southerners (that’s “people from southeastern US” for non-US readers), but I don’t have them droppin’ final g’s in the dialogue; however, I do write words like “gotta” or “gonna.” I just go with the idea that since I already state that they’re from the South, the accent is implied.

  19. TamarBon 04 Jul 2012 at 1:55 pm

    Wow, is dropping G’s really that offensive to most readers? I tend to parse it just as quickly as the non-dropped version of words when reading, and I’m not sure a written U.S. southerner is at all convincing without it (speaking as one.) I have two southerners and a Texan in my current WIP; G’s are dropped and “Y’all” is used, as are “Gotta”, “Gonna,” etc.. There are no weird spellings that a reader won’t have seen before, but the accent is definitely represented in the text. Am I the only person who doesn’t find this level of dialect distracting at all? Should I change it?

  20. Blackscaron 27 Jan 2013 at 4:42 pm

    How would one go about typing a lisp in a way that isn’t considered painful on the eyes? Would I actually type the whole thing out:

    “Jethuth, dude, calm down! It’th not that theriouth!” he cried, batting his companion’s arm away.

    Or instead, would I type:

    “Jesus, dude, calm down! It’s not that serious!” he lisped, batting his companion’s arm away.

  21. B. McKenzieon 27 Jan 2013 at 4:58 pm

    Hello, Blackscar. Personally, I’d prefer the second version, perhaps working in a ‘th’ in special situations (e.g. if his lisp shows up mainly when he’s stressed or panicking). In contrast, if he’s lisping 50+ times over the course of the book, I think that’d be more distracting than helpful.

  22. wolfgirlon 05 Feb 2014 at 1:48 pm

    Ive got a problem. One of my main characters, Klous von Hurtz, speaks with a thick german accent. This is important becaude his girlfriend, Tessa, is jewish and her family has this big thing about never trust a German. That combined with the fact Klous’s grandfather was a Nazi is why Tessa’s family hates Klous.

  23. B. McKenzieon 05 Feb 2014 at 11:19 pm

    WG, if the story’s set circa 2014, I feel it might be really hard to make this conflict work. For example, if the grandfather is 85 years old in 2014, he was 15 when the war ended, which I think will make it feel contrived that Tessa’s family holds his grandson responsible for what the grandfather did 70 years ago, before the grandfather was old enough to drive.

    If this subplot is a critical aspect to the story, I’d recommend either setting the story several decades earlier (e.g. 1960-1980) or substituting a historical conflict with a more recent flash-point (e.g. Russia/USSR vs. Ukraine or Poland, Serbia vs. the other Yugoslavian states, Sweden vs. France, Turkey vs. Armenia, maybe India/Pakistan, Iraq and Iran, etc) or replacing it with some something vaguely similar like a conflict between two orthodox religious families or an orthodox religious family and hippies or whatever.

    Also, if the grandfather is 85+ years old, is he actually a major part of the grandson’s life? (I would guess not, based on age/health). If Tessa’s family get in his face over a family member he probably isn’t incredibly close to, I think it’d probably make them look very unlikable.

  24. Wolfgirlon 06 Feb 2014 at 4:43 am

    Thanks for the advice. I guess I’ll take that part out. 😀

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