Accents: To Write or Not to Write?

(writing)

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Powerful writing happens in many ways

One way that separates amateur writing from professional is VOICE. Do all your characters sound the same when they talk?

  • Like, does the 13-year-old girl talk like a 13-year-old girl?
  • Does the grandma say grandmotherly things for Pete’s sake?
  • Do your men discuss their inner feelings too much?

There is definitely a balance between creating non-stereotypical characters and using accents and common jargon to define them. But VOICE is a great way to show things about your character without constantly having to tell your reader who they are and where they’re from.

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One way I have explored this is writing accents

My dystopian trilogy features two characters from the South. I’ve worked on their accents, dialect, and what-have-yous for three years now, and I am still not confident I got it right.

I read The Help and The Secret Life of Bees, which both featured heavy southern accents. But as I was reading, I often had to reread a sentence to figure out what was being said. For example in The Help, there is this sentence:

. “Ever morning, until you dead in the ground, you gone have to make this decision. You gone have to ask yourself, “Am I gone believe what them fools say about me today?”     ― Kathryn Stockett, The Help.

That takes some work to read. Yet, I loved both books and felt completely immersed in the South. Both books had very strong VOICES. So I thought I’d ask all you great people:

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How do you feel about accents in books? Are they obnoxious? Do they cause you to stumble, or do you love them?

As I researched accents in writing, I came across something on the internet that talked about portraying accents and dialects without changing the spelling of the words. This way, the reader isn’t stumbling over sentences. In other words, certain areas of the country and world have a way of ordering words, or substituting words for another that portrays the accent without jumbling any spelling. For example:

I might say to my teenager:

“I think you better stop singing before I get mad.”

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Where a mother from a backwoods hollar in Virginia might say:

“I reckon you best stop singing before I pop your big head off.” (It’s hard to read that without adding a southern twang. Someday I hope to write a story from the backwoods of Virginia because they have so many fun sayings. )

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I like this method of choosing your words rather than re-spelling them because the reader isn’t tripping over sentences all the time. However, it takes a lot of work. A lot of work.

In Sadie, the bad guy had a Spanish accent. I took out all contractions, formalized a lot of what he said, and even changed the word order in some sentences. For example, in a voice mail, Guillermo says:

“I know I do not deserve for you to come back to me. You may be doubting my love right now, but that is why I ask for you to return. Let me show you my sadness, how I have worried night and day for you.”

And later in the book,

“I am sure his name was on the invitation, no?”

Subtle, but it was his VOICE.

In this new series I’m working on, Greg and Mariah Pierce are from North Carolina. Greg has less of a southern accent than his mom, Mariah, which…whew. Why do I do this to myself? Yet, when I get it right, it works. She ends up with some southern spunk. He ends up sounding like college has tempered his accent some. Will the reader ever notice? Maybe not. At least not consciously. Hopefully, they will get some of their background without me spelling it out for them.

Since I’ve spent a long time working on their southern, I thought I’d share some of my ideas with you. This list isn’t that long, which means I am completely open to suggestions. If you’ve spent some time in the South (specifically the Carolinas) and want to add to my list, please do! I’ll republish this post as ideas come in. I know there are a lot more examples, but here are just a few of mine:

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My quick list of “Find and Replace” words for a southern accent

  1. you guys = y’all 
  2. I think = I reckon or I figure (example listed above)
  3. someone, anyone, everyone = somebody, anybody, everybody
  4. very or so = real or awful (example: I’m so mad. I’m real mad or I’m awful mad.)
  5. people or parents = folks (example: Some folks got it real bad.)
  6. could have,should have,would have = coulda, shoulda, woulda
  7. going to= gonna 
  8. almost = near
  9. working on = fixin’ to
  10. have = got (example: see #5)
  11. stop = quit 
  12. I’ve taken the Gs off most -ing verbs. However, I may change this back, depending on what an editor thinks — or what you guys think. (example: Thanks, darlin’. It was nice chattin’ with you.)
  13. Plus, there are hundreds of phrases and traditions that are regional specific. It takes research, but it can add authenticity to a story and character. Here’s a quick line from my new book:
“Mama squealed like a piglet when it jumped off her lap the first time; ‘bout near gave her a heart attack. I was sure she’d never forgive Kendra and Greg, but she did. She always did.” Mariah sighed. “Oh my sweet, baby girl.” (Can you hear the accent?)

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Even though it’s a lot of hard work, writing is a blast, isn’t it?

I love, love, love it!

What ways have you seen VOICE written that portrayed a character without tripping up the reader? What southern ideas do you have for me?

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Author: Rebecca Belliston @rlbelliston

Hopeless romantic and author of CITIZENS OF LOGAN POND, SADIE and AUGUSTINA. Music nerd and composer of RELIGIOUS and CLASSICAL-STYLE music. I live in Michigan with my husband and five kids.

7 thoughts on “Accents: To Write or Not to Write?”

  1. Great examples. I don’t have any Southern advise…except southern Utah (and there you just speak in a slow drawl). I like leaving the g off the -ing words above. I love books that use accents well–but it is a fine line, because if it’s too authentic, it can trip up the reader. I think it best to throw in ‘some’ accent, but not overdo it (a good example of this is Kitchen House by Grissom). The story is the main thing you want to get across. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was hard to read (even though I loved it). The accent is thick and took me about 100 pages before I finally ‘got it’ and could read without rereading every line and saying, “What?”

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    1. Haha, love Southern Utah folk. :) I’ll have to check out Kitchen House. I agree with you completely on the balance thing. I think so much of writing is hinting at something without beating the point in to the ground. A hint of an accent every once in awhile might be enough to make it feel authentic.

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  2. Accents can be tricky, and if done wrong can really ruin a good story. I don’t know if it was JK Rowling’s intention, but her French accent for Fleur became a point of amusement with fans, and made it hard for them to take the character seriously.

    I think if an accent add to the character, but without distracting from the story (i.e. you’re having to re-read passages) it’s okay.

    I think the key is, as you mentioned above, word order and paying attention to what words certain cultures use.

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    1. I haven’t read past the first book of Harry Potter, so I’m not sure on the Fleur thing. You definitely don’t want readers finding the accent amusing. In fact, the reader probably shouldn’t be thinking about the accent much at all. As a writer, you don’t want to pull readers out of the story. Thanks for your thoughts.

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  3. Don’t forget “fixin’ to”–like “I’m fixin’ to go to the store”. Bigtime southern. And, just a tidbit about me, the one southern bit I refuse to pick up in my speech. I say “ya’ll” all the time, but I’m never fixin’ to do anything. :-)

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    1. Haha, love it. Funny enough, it’s the one phrase I haven’t added into my book yet. Something about it sounds a little too over the top to me. I guess I haven’t spent enough time down south. :)

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