By Guy Anthony De Marco
Copyright © 2008 by Guy Anthony De Marco, All Rights Reserved
A friend of mine, born and
raised in Scotland, once complained about how the Scots are portrayed in
books. "It's not the characters, for the most part; it's the way authors
try to write with a brogue. To me, it makes Scotland look like a bunch
of uneducated people mumbling under their breath.”
I never thought of it that
way. I picked up some genre fiction that included heavy accents, and I
had to agree.
In general, there are only
two rules when portraying accents in literature. The first is the
dialogue must be done in a consistent manner. If a character says canna
for cannot, the word 'cannot' shouldn't appear in her dialogue. The only
things that can change the way someone speaks is if there is some
influence modifying the character, such as if the character is possessed
or has multiple personalities, or, like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair
Lady, gets training or adapts to the environment over a long period.
Changing the way one speaks takes a lot of effort and time. I'm
originally from Brooklyn, New York, and it took a few years to rid
myself of my heavy Brooklyn accent. I still sometimes trip up and say
"New Yawk" or "Gimme a cuppa cawfee, please."
The second rule of accents,
and one that tends to get bent, is the character must say things that
the reader can translate. If it looks like the character accidently
chewed up the words before spewing them, the reader may decide to pick
up a different story to read. The line between decipherable and
indecipherable can be thin, and changes depending on the reader. An
author must balance the way a character speaks so the audience can
extract the important elements necessary for the enjoyment of the story.
Some writers decide on a few
words to give a particular character a recognizable speech
characteristic. Others set up certain vowels or patterns to modify.
Take, for example, Hagrid, from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling,
when he first tells the boy he's a wizard:
"A wizard, o' course," said
Hagrid, sitting back down on the sofa, which groaned and sank even
lower, "an' a thumpin' good'un, I'd say, once yeh've been trained up a
In the example, Hagrid uses
o' for of, an' for and,
and yeh for you, and words ending with
ing are modified to in'. Ms. Rowling uses these
speech patterns consistently, throughout all seven books. The rest of
the words Hagrid speaks are spelled normally, in Standard English.
In Uncle Tom's Cabin,
by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author uses accents to distinguish the
characters and their class.
"Poor critturs! What made 'em
cruel?--and, if I give out, I shall get used to 't, and grow, little by
little, just like 'em! No, no, Missis! I've lost everything,--wife and
children, and home, and a kind Mas'r,--and he would have set me free, if
he'd only lived a week longer; I've lost everything in this world, and
it's clean gone, forever,--and now I can't lose Heaven, too; no, I can't
get to be wicked, besides all!"
In this example, the author
only uses a couple of dialogue modifiers, but the effect is powerful,
especially when compared to the way the slave owners speak. The
sentences are stilted, but the reader can easily extract what the
character is trying to say.
Look closely at both
excerpts. Notice that the authors choose the most obvious speaking
differences. The rest of the dialogue appears 'normal.' These speech
characteristics give the characters flavor and life, and set them apart
from the rest of the cast. Note that the respective authors did not try
to make every spoken word fit a particular speech pattern. Attempting to
do so will result in inconsistencies and dialogue that is difficult to
One additional item to watch
for is how the reader will react to your dialogue. My Scottish friend
refuses to read any novels that make an accent look like an accident at
the printing shop. An author should be aware of the sensibilities of the
audience, especially beyond North American borders.
As my friend said, "It's you
Yanks who have the funny accents. We all talk normally in Edinburgh."
Uncle Tom's Cabin,
by Harriet Beecher Stowe; W.W. Norton, 1st Edition, ISBN
Potter and the Philosopher's Stone,
by J. K. Rowling; Bloomsbury Children's, ISBN 978-0747571667