I am hopeless at accents. I struggle even to say a word as simple as ‘mom’ without sounding like an Englishwoman failing terribly at putting on an American accent. It’s all to do with the way our mouths form vowels, and my ‘Os’ are more ‘O’ and less ‘Ah’.
I never considered myself to have an accent of my own until I moved to LA, and now not a day goes by without someone saying to me “I love your accent!” (even after more than ten years living Stateside).
However, no matter how bad my attempts at speaking accents are, my brain hears them quite clearly and perfectly. For writers, this is really good news, because as long as your reader knows a character’s accent, they’ll hear it authentically when they read it, even if their ability to fake accents is as abysmal as mine.
The chances are while you’re reading this, there’s an inner voice in your head speaking the words (unless you’re one of the 17.7 per cent of the population who doesn’t have this voice!) For the vast majority of us, the voice is our own, although the tone or inflections may be different to our normal speaking voice.
People use the same voice, with minimal tweaks, when they’re reading the dialogue of characters in a book. However, if a reader knows that a character has an accent, and the associated dialect reflects that speech, then the reader will apply that accent, almost perfectly, to the character’s dialogue.
Because the human brain is quite incredible!
So, if you’re writing an accent into one of your characters, there are a few things to consider.
- Let your reader know – when you introduce a character, let your reader know where that character is from. It can be subtle, ‘Although she loved America, she missed the England she grew up in’, or it can be obvious, ‘He was a Londoner living in LA’. It doesn’t matter, as long as your reader knows.
- Use dialect – as much as you can’t write accents, you can write dialect. For example, ‘you guys’ can generally be spoken by any number of dialects, but if you were to read ‘y’all’, you’d automatically think of the southern accent.
- Consistency – if you’re throwing an accent in, remember that character will have to have that accent all the way through. Many TV series pilots have characters with accents, and by the time we’re a few episodes in, those accents have miraculously disappeared. TV gets away with it because there is at least a week between episodes, and because the consumer isn’t using their own mind to give a TV character an accent. A reader will work through a book in a shorter length of time, and a character’s voice is already in their head.
- Don’t write the accent – no matter how tempting, don’t try to write the accent in. It’s nearly always wrong, and it’s incredibly difficult to read. An example would be a Southerner saying, ‘I have an eyelash in my eye’, and the author trying to write it in the southern accent, ‘Aah have an aah-lash in mah aah’.