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Writing

How to Write Character Accents: 5 Tips for Using Dialects in Writing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 18, 2020 • 3 min read

What do Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series have in common? They both feature memorable use of character accents and regional dialects. Though writing accents can help make your character’s voice distinct and memorable, there are certain pitfalls to avoid when rendering specific speech patterns.

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5 Tips for Writing Character Accents

Accents give us information about where a character is from, and the use of distinct speech patterns can give your story a rich texture and flavor. Here are some tips to consider when giving your characters accents:

  1. Make sure your character’s speech isn’t distracting. When writing dialect or a particular accent, it can be tempting to write a character’s dialogue using phonetic spellings. However, this use of dialect can distract your reader. If your character is French and is constantly saying “ze” instead of “the,” the reader will be focusing more on decoding the line of dialogue than they will on plot or character development. When writing fiction, your reader’s attention should always be on the story, and anything that distracts from that probably isn’t worth including.
  2. Research slang and colloquialisms. Each region of the world has its own standard pronunciation, sentence structure, and slang. If your main character has an Australian, Jamaican, Spanish, or Scottish accent, their word choice will likely be different than if they grew up speaking American English. Research commonly used foreign words, slang phrases, and colloquialisms from your character's part of the world. Listen to podcasts that feature speakers from your desired region. Be as specific as possible: If your character is from New York, their word choice might be different depending on if they’re from the Bronx or Staten Island.
  3. Use pieces of other languages. If you’re writing a character who speaks a foreign language, one way to communicate their accent is to simply include snippets of their native tongue in their lines of dialogue. This will demonstrate the character’s native language and implied accent without resorting to the distracting eyesore of phonetic spelling. When writing words from languages besides English, you may need to include accented letters. Writing accented characters is simple to do on a common keyboard; you can apply accent marks and special characters by using keyboard shortcuts. You can also change your keyboard settings to an international keyboard, which will make it easier to type accents that use accent graves or other accent marks.
  4. Don’t stereotype. Writing different dialects indelicately can make you appear condescending towards non-native English speakers or people who use the English language differently than you do. One of the most common offenders is the use of “eye dialect,” which refers to using misspellings or nonstandard spellings in order to depict a character’s accent (for instance, writing “fixin’” with an apostrophe instead of “fixing” in order to demonstrate Appalachian or Southern accents). By focusing on the “otherness” of regional dialects and non-native speakers, a writer may give the impression that they are making fun of the way people speak. When writing different accents, keep eye dialect to a minimum.
  5. Recognize that character speech is determined by context. Accents aren’t always determined by region or nationality. Sometimes, our own accents change depending on who we’re speaking to or our emotional or physical state. We may slur our speech when we’re drunk, or we may attempt to use complex English words when we’re speaking with someone we perceive to be of a higher status. Seeing a character change their accents in different contexts can serve as a clever way of revealing the emotional condition of a character.

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