Writing in an accent that’s not yours

The first manuscript I wrote – First Aid for a Broken Heart – features an American heroine and a British hero. Throughout the story, I tried to make sure that Spencer doesn’t just speak like a Brit but thinks like one, while Caitlyn thinks and speaks like an American.

Weirdly (considering I’m American), Spencer’s voice came much more easily to me. I’ve lived in London for over five years; I’m surrounded by British accents all day. Caitlyn was more of a struggle because I forget what Americans sound like.

Since a lot of the historical novels I read are set in England but written by American authors, I find it interesting how those authors can so often get a mainstream English accent right. But loads of people writing particular British accents (Cockney or Highlands, for example) make their characters sound cartoonish.

So how can you write in an accent that’s not yours?

1. Understand what makes people sound different.

Depending on where we grow up, our socioeconomic class, and education, we will pronounce words differently, use different inflection, choose particular words over others, order them differently in a sentence, and sometimes speak in dialect (a variety of language with its own grammar, syntax and pronunciation).

As writers, we know that a character’s voice can reveal hundreds of nuances about their background, but voice is incredibly difficult to describe without resorting to hackneyed language.

2. Make sure it’s an accent you’re intimately familiar with.

I’m convinced that the only way it’ll sound natural on paper is if it sounds natural in your head. If it’s something you have to research, make sure you know if really well before trying to write it.

When I asked my Twitter followers yesterday about this topic, Lily Callahan summed it up perfectly (in less than 140 characters!): “Getting the accent right is about getting the culture right and capturing how that expresses itself in language.”

If you don’t know the culture, you’ll struggle with how that character will express themselves.

3. Avoid the usual dialecty words.

Okay, “dialecty” isn’t a word, but I don’t know how else to describe these random words that writers have adopted to prove their characters are from a certain place.

One example is “N’Awlins”. I know my crit partner Suzanne hates when characters talk about N’Awlins. It’s always grated on me, too, but having only been to New Orleans once I never knew if it was actually the way people there spoke about themselves. (Thanks, Suz, for reassuring me that it’s not.)

My personal pet peeve is when characters from the Highlands say “dinna”. It always slows me down when I’m reading, so I imagine the character speaking really slowly and stumbling over his awkward lines. Just please…don’t. Particularly if you’re not from a place.

4. Be careful about where you source your accent information from.

A lot of people would advise you to watch movies with characters who speak in that accent. Remember, though, that actors are not always hired because of their acting abilities. Dick van Dyke put on a notoriously bad Cockney accent in Mary Poppins, but some of the characters I read about in novels sound like he provided the inspiration.

Also keep in mind that actors are often over-dramatic, and that accents and vocabulary change over time. If you watch films to help your characters’ accents, be sure they’re from the right time period, and research any historic slang in the Oxford English Dictionary.

5. Use slang sparingly.

There are loads of online slang dictionaries for different regions. It’s fine to consult these, but remember that slang does not make a character. Or, at least, it doesn’t make an interesting character. Unless you’re writing about a 14 year old who’s trying too hard to be cool, use slang sparingly.

6. It’s all about the grammar.

The biggest differences I’ve noticed between types of English is the grammar, not the word choice. Grammar is a subtle way of showing your character speaks a bit differently to others.

If you’re an American writing British characters, go on English as a foreign language websites and find lessons on the differences in grammar. You’d be surprised by the little things that will give your character away as being inauthentic.

For example, Brits use collective nouns for singular entities made up of several people. “My family are driving me crazy.” “My football team were losing at half-time.” In my British/American story, a contest judge marked me down for bad grammar when Spencer thought about the England national rugby team, “England were the world champions.” It’s not bad grammar; it’s British grammar.

Do you have any tips to add? Do you write characters who don’t have your accent? How do you make them sound authentic?

Comments

  1. Great post! I struggle with this. I just finished a short story with some Cajun guys and they really do have a distinctive accent. How to show that without falling into what I call “Huck Finn Hell” is really hard. Show a little, but not a lot. And let’s not even talk about fabricated accents for mythological creatures come to life :-) (Oh, and “yeah you right” –a favorite New Orleans phrase–it’s “N’Orluns” accent on the N’Or!

    • Cajun – sheesh! Good thing you lived in the right region for so long.

      I guess the good thing about mythical creatures is that you can create your own dialect for them. It’s sort of what I do at work – whenever my boss points out I’ve misspelled or misused a word, I tell him it’s correct in America. My version of American English probably has a lot in common with your mythical creatures’ languages.

  2. Jacquelyn says:

    I am currently writing a character from Edinburgh, which has been a bit of a challenge considering I am Canadian. I am one of those people that quickly (and often unavoidably) develops the accent around me, so I have found it quite helpful to read Trainspotting for an hour or so before I begin writing this particular character. So helpful! I also want to avoid making my character sound cartoonish. (I cringe when I read Outlander!)
    Thanks for the great article! You make a lot of very good points and I am so glad I found your lovely blog.

    • I love Trainspotting (the novel and the film). People from Edinburgh have an incredibly difficult accent to replicate – and I think I’m right in saying there’s not just one Edinburgh accent – so you’ve really set yourself a hard task! But being aware of the difficulties is probably the first step toward nailing the accent – or at least avoiding making it cartoonish. Good luck, Jacquelyn, and I’m glad you found this blog too!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] speech patterns I’ve written a couple posts about accents – specifically, about how to write a character who has a different accent to you, and some subtle differences in British and American [...]

  2. [...] everyone! Kat already wrote a great post about how I used accents in In for a Penny and a really awesome post on writing accents generally…I’ll try not to repeat myself, or [...]

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