Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

The Joy of Accent

Feath MacKirin
2003, Feath MacKirin

here are many ways to make your characters stand out from the crowd. One of the easiest -- and hardest -- is to give them an accent. With an accent, or distinctive voice, you can tell the reader a great deal about your character, without falling into "telling."

Here is an example of three people from different backgrounds saying the same thing:

  • "That buzzer wen' off louder than ah huffy sheep; I mashed that button over 'n over 'gain, but it wouldn't be stoppin' for nutin. I figgure the battery was messed up."

  • "The smoke alarm went off loud enough to wake the dead and when I tried poking the little red button, it didn't do nothin'! I suppose the battery was diddling up."

  • "Da alarm bout skart us ens to death, an hitten that bitty button didn't do jack. Guess there was sumpin' wrong wid the battery." 

Word choice is a large part of regional accents. "Mash", "push", "poke", "punch", "hit"; all mean to push a button.

Swallowing the end of a word: "nothin'" ... In acting circles, it means you're lazy, but it also can indicate lack of education. Unless, of course, your characters are from Boston -- even highly educated people from Boston swallow the end of their words.

Specific letters not pronounced: Again, using Boston as an example, the letter R is often not said. "Take the caw and pawk it at the drive."

Word choices for education level: "figure", "guess", "suppose", "suspect", "deduct", "surmise", "speculate", "conjecture".

Word choices for country: Most Europeans cannot tell an American accent from a Canadian. I tell them to listen for a "eh" (pronounced A) at the end of a sentence. Most Canadians will pepper their speech with them, while an American will only do it if asking a question (and then, rarely). And even though the British and American's both speak English, their word choices clearly show the differences.

Here is an example of a Brit and a Yank, saying the same thing:

  • "The geezer in my flat went off, so I lit a fag and thought who to ring."

  • "My apartments water heater broke, so I lit a cigarette and thought who to call."

Can you fake an accent?

No. You must know the accent to depict it realistically, unless of course, the entire language is created by you. If you're not sure what the accent is, what the word choices are, what the education choices are, you need to research it. Reading will help. Or you can watch movies with characters from that time or place.

One thing I do is "listen" to my grandfather. If I want "hick," I think of how he spoke when he made fun of his roots. I also think how my great grandmother spoke for a "western" accent. Another great source were the people I worked with. I also listened to the people at the bus stop, or in any large congested area. How does a Scotsman say 'river'? (Rrrivrr). (Englishman (riV-ah), Pakistani (reevah).) Ah, the joys of accent!

How much is too much?

A good rule of thumb is the more words that are 'accented' the less your characters say. It can become fatiguing for a reader to wade through a large section of accented dialogue. Once you've set the 'voice' of your character in your readers mind, you can tone it down a bit, and the reader will still 'hear' the accent. Word choice can still help, as well, by setting the tone.

Getting the accent right can be difficult, but once you do, you will find your character has greatly improved. We are a reflection of where we live, who we learned our language skills from, what our education is and our intelligence. It's all there in our speech; all you have to do is ... listen to the accent.