Accent on Character

by G. B. Pool

Talking Mouth

I have mentioned before that “Dialogue is the workhorse of the novel or short story.” It provides plot advancement, character development, and action or movement. In a way, it sings. In other words, it brings the story to life.

A character blurting out information that advances the plot is far more interesting than a long narrative description of same. Through dialogue we discover personality traits about the various people who populate our stories. How a person speaks and acts while talking says a lot more about him or her than words alone. And dialogue provides real time action. You are in the room with the characters as they speak. You’re eavesdropping or right in the middle of the conversation. Or the character might be speaking directly to you.

“There’s someone sneaking up behind you. Watch out!”

Got your attention, didn’t it? That’s what dialogue should do.

In order to know how a character speaks or acts, or even the words he uses, you must get to know your characters… intimately. I suggest that you write a biography of at least your principle characters so you know who they are.

First, make the characters seem real to you as well as to your readers. Let them speak to you and trust them. Most writers will tell you they actually “hear” their characters, and it is that particular “voice” that makes a character unique.

Talking Mouth 2Here is one really cool way to make a character different: Whether he or she is a major or a minor actor in the piece, give him or her an accent. That doesn’t mean you have to write their dialogue all in French or Pig Latin. In fact, too much of a good thing can turn off your readers. But a word or phrase sprinkled in to give the reader a taste of that foreign accent, regional twang, or distinctive way of speaking… speaks volumes.

An accent or even a stutter tells something about the character, at least where he comes from or maybe why she knows so much about French cooking. And it’s fun. It breaks up the monotony of every character sounding alike. A Southern belle would have far more sass that say, a straight-laced New England spinster. And a gal with a lisp can add a little color, especially when she struggles to tell about “a thip thinking in the harbor.” How long will it take for folks to realize there is a ship in distress?

Here are a few examples that might get you in the mood to try an accent:

 

An Accent Enhances the Character:

 In a simple scene where you have a neighbor who makes a guest appearance, why not make her colorful? The first example is a neighbor with no personality. The second example gives her some character.

  1. “Sweetheart, something has happened to your living room. Did you perhaps get another dog?”

vs.

  1. “Honey, somethin’s happened to yer living room. Did ya’ll get another dawg?” (from Hedge Bet)

 

Mexican senoritaHow About a Foreign Accent?

Let’s try Spanish –

The volcano erupted again. “No. No. NO! My Franco no cheat. He best jockey in dee worlds. He no fix dee race. Meester Paul Bradshaw, beeg shot at dee track, pick my Franco to be dee one to give check to Jockey Fund.”            (from Hedge Bet)

 

One thing I do when writing these accents is to put the foreign word or mispronounced (and misspelled) word in italics so the reader gets the hint that the word is supposed to be that way and that I’m not a poor typist or speller. It also makes reading those words a little easier because the reader goes along with the gag.

 

Maybe a Speech Impediment Might Add Character:

Remember, not everyone is Laurence Olivier with a perfect English accent. Take for example a time when your main character encounters someone who is going to give him information. What if she is both colorful in looks as well as speech? This old dear lisps and isn’t exactly a rocket scientist, but boy does she have character.

 

Mouse stopped eating. He must have been rethinking his desire to find the king’s killer. He gazed in the direction Buttons had taken and I think he would have bolted had PJ not spoken.

 

“We never thee what the people in the truckth are doing,” PJ said. “They want uth out on the thtreet or in the front of one of the thtoreth keeping them occupied.”                        (from Only in Hollywood)

 

What about a New England Accent?

Pahk ya cah in the rear so ma customers don’t think we’re bein’ raided,” said the woman.

Harry followed the two women inside. Before Jane looked at the copy of the photo from Evelyn Wright’s passport, she yelled over her shoulder to the L.A. cop, “Shut the doh-wah, honey. Don’t want any vermin gettin’ in the crockery.” (from Closer coming in 2019)

 

Try an accent the next time you want to shake up your dialogue. It brings added interest to your story. And when you “hear” how others speak you just might want to let some of your characters have a go at it. It’s fun and lets you stretch those writing muscles.

Travel

 

 

“I say, ’avin’ an accent is a bit of all right. So ’ave a go at it, guv.”

 

Thanks for dropping by. Write on. G.B. Pool

Author: gbpool

A former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, Gayle Bartos-Pool (writing as G.B. Pool) writes two detective series: the Gin Caulfield P.I. series (Media Justice, Hedge Bet & Damning Evidence) and The Johnny Casino Casebook Series. She also penned a series of spy novels, The SPYGAME Trilogy: The Odd Man, Dry Bones, and Star Power. She has a collection of short stories in From Light To DARK, as well as novels: Eddie Buick’s Last Case, Enchanted: The Ring, The Rose, and The Rapier, The Santa Claus Singer, and three delightful holiday storied, Bearnard’s Christmas, The Santa Claus Machine, and Every Castle Needs a Dragon. Also published: CAVERNS and Second Chance. She is the former Speakers Bureau Director for Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles and also a member of Mystery Writers of America and The Woman’s Club of Hollywood. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story,” (The Anatomy of a Short Story Workbook is available.) “How To Write Convincing Dialogue” and “Writing a Killer Opening Line” in sunny Southern California. Website: www.gbpool.com.

20 thoughts on “Accent on Character”

  1. God morgon från Göteborg Sverige (Can you hear my American accent?) I’m currently in Sweden at an international scientific conference where the default language is English. I’ve been hearing all sorts of accents from both foreign and American attendees, so your post is especially relevant. Interestingly enough, the Swedes speak English without a trace of an accent. It’s so perfect they could be broadcasters. The French have difficulty with soft I-s, like the I in THIS, which sounds more like a hard E (“Thees”). Italians tend to add a hint of a vowel ending to words that end with consonants (“Thisa”). Canadians soften their hard O-s and throw in the occasional ‘eh?’. And most non-English speakers struggle with the TH sound, which is not part of their language. Thanks to your interesting post I’ll be listening more closely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It might be hard to differentiate each regional accent, but a taste of one used for a character always makes for a nice change. And phonetically spelling lets the reader know how the word should be pronounced. I’ll enjoy your next book when you slip in an accent or two.

      Like

  2. Gayle, I think you’re right about dialogue being the workhorse of the story. And it’s definitely best if characters each have their own way of talking. One thing that bugs me is when I read dialogue without contractions. It’s so stilted, yet some writers write that way.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Gayle, you wrote an enormously important piece. Accents, as you wonderfully illustrate, are indeed character. My amateur sleuth is a Brit and her written dialogue has no discernible accent so I must use Brit slang or phrases to indicate her background. One accent I am currently writing is for the subject of a memoir. He is from the Deep south, background of Tennessee, and believe me, just typing it gives me a headache. Thank you so much for those pointers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jill, A British accent is always so much fun whether the character is high-born or Cockney or from Liverpool. As for the southern accent, they use way more syllables than other regions making them another fun read.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What an enjoyable and thought provoking post! Besides reading, I had to read all the dialogue out loud and try for accents. What fun! And for my writing, I’ve only used accents or non-formal sentence or word structure several times, but you’ve made me think…and there might be some changes coming up. Excellent post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mad, There is something about capturing a character through his or her speech pattern. It can define the person and add that distinctive layer to your story much like you do with the scenery you paint in your books. And I love to learn new stuff, so when a character speaks to me in another language… I listen.

      Like

  5. You professionals are all so good. I find that the kids in my missionary family stories are speaking almost alike… except for their ages, of course. When I have an African speak, however, I try at least to use the cadence and omissions in his/her English.

    Like

    1. A writer c-c-can have a c-c-character stutter; like use a phrase like all the time; or add a key phrase, yo man. They like m-m-make a c-c-character so like totally s-s-special, yo man. Can ya dig it?

      Like

  6. I’m not sure if I mentioned this in a previous post, but I had my sleuth go undercover as a “redneck queen” in a disreputable bar. I had a redneck consultant (seriously) who vetted the scene for dialogue, setting, and costume. It was fun.

    Like

    1. I love the idea of doing research on an accent, Maggie. I have traveled enough to know a few of these accents from being there. The others are a result of taking acting lessons years ago and learning how to improv on the spot.

      Like

  7. Great piece, Gayle. Characters with accents do bring different colors to our writing, as you say. Hey – I use a lot of Lottie’s cockney accent to reveal her personality. Well, I channel Lottie – so she chooses what she wants to say….

    Like

  8. Gayle, I agree with you. Adding an accent makes the character real. My character, Antoinette LeJeune – – Andi for short – – is from New Orleans, and I drop the “g” in her speech in words like “doin’, goin’, singin’, et cetera. I also made up her expression of “Holy Krewe!” (A Krewe is an organization that parades at Mardi Gras.) As to characters from foreign countries, I’ve written an occasional sentence in French, German, or Spanish in italics, following up with the English translation of a dialogue question or answer.

    Like

    1. Alice, Your Andi character who appeared in your last few R.A. Huber novels was so clever. Her southern accent set her personality and made her unique.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s