On Writing Accents

hagridDuring my English degree, one of my classes studied Hagrid from the Harry Potter series. I was fascinated by our class discussions on his character, and specifically, his accent. My professor’s theory was that Hagrid’s accent reveals not only his education level, but his intelligence level. His lack of intelligence combined with fierce loyalty is what makes this character endearing and, more importantly, absolutely trustworthy to the reader.

While the Potterhead in me was protective of Hagrid, the class made me more aware of the role that accents can play in books, suggesting character’s origins, economic status, or indeed education levels. As I’m turning my time more and more to writing, I’ve been playing with character accents. It just makes sense to me: in a diverse world, people from different places speak differently. What I’m discovering, though, is that writing accents is a lot harder than it seems – and it’s more than just dropping your g’s.

Growing up, I never had a problem reading Hagrid’s accent. It flowed with the overall narrative of the story and was never distracting. I didn’t really have to think twice about why the character had an accent – he just did.

“Las’ time I saw you, you was only a baby,” said the giant. “Yeh look a lot like yer dad, but yeh’ve  got yer mum’s eyes.” […] “a very happy birthday to yeh. Got summat fer yeh here – I mighta sat on it at some point, but it’ll taste all right.” (p 40-41)

happee-birthdae

Yet in contrast to this accent, I recently read the book Closer to Home by Mercedes Lackey. In this novel, the character Mags had a rough childhood and as a result has a rather rough accent:

“‘E said ‘e waited a decent bit afore arrangin’ t’hand the letter off to someone that’d give it to a Shin’a’in horsetrader ‘e’s got contact with. Wish’t I knew how ‘e managed that. I didn’ know th’ Shin’a’in went that far.” (p 9)

As a reader, I hated this accent. It was inconsistent, distracting, and completely irritating. I found myself actually skipping over parts of the dialogue because I couldn’t be bothered to read the accent. And taking a look at the Goodread’s reviews, I’m not the only one.

So where does this leave me when I’m trying to write accents myself? Well it turns out that there is a lot of great advice out there when it comes to writing accents. I looked through quite a few posts but wanted to share two of my favourite finds:

Phrasing – Including stereotypical phrasing, specific to that character, helps the reader to visualize the accent. “Whatever could he want with her, darling?” is a different accent from a different social status than “What the blazes does he want with her?”

6 Tips for Writing Accents by Jaimie M. Engle

I really love the idea of phrasing. It allows for characters to have distinct voices from one another based on the way they say certain things. It also allows for the character’s personality to come through the dialogue. Check out the blog post for the other 5 tips – I liked them all!

Similarly, this blog post outlines the issues of Scottish accents and how they can be disruptive to the flow of reading. I really liked her suggestion:

More Dialect, Less Accent. In other words, use the appropriate regional words and phrases that will attach a locality or nationality to your character—without all the accents. Slang works the same way—it can indicate young versus old, city versus country, and a lot more. Do you carry your groceries in a sack or a bag? Drink soda or pop? Eat a sub or a hoagie? Those words place you.

Dinna Canna Dialogue by Raelene at Pubparlor

The idea of dialect makes so much sense to me. It’s easy to think of examples – Like Harry Potter and ‘jumpers’ – and again is representative of a realistic world.

Both of these strategies really appeal to me. I love that I can create distinct voices and personalities between characters without interrupting the flow of the story – or annoying the reader. It will be interesting applying these techniques to characters as I make decisions about their social status, education, and background. I’m looking forward to writing this week!

How about you – do you have any great strategies for writing characters with accents? I’d love to hear them – leave a comment!

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