You might think I would choose the characters for my first novel to be modern reflections of me, saying phrases I would say in my subtle Texas twang. Perhaps I thought I needed a challenge.
My story is set 200 years in the past where my characters are German, Indian, Irish, British and French. When they do speak English, their dialogue is so weighed down with their accents that writing in plain English feels like a misrepresentation.
I don’t believe a character should be solely defined by their accent. Just saying “He’s French” only allows the reader to fill in the blanks of what that means to them, instead of you presenting a fleshed out being for their observation and enjoyment. The character’s use of the English language (or the novelist’s native language) is important though. What is equally important, however, is that the reader be able to understand what the character is saying and not be so distracted by the mangled words written to emphasize their foreign origins.
For me, dialogue is broken up into what words the character uses and then how they pronounce those words. The words they use can be based on the words they know or are comfortable with in that language, or their general education level, or even their emotional state at the time. Let’s do a sample sentence.
Here’s my character Bullfinch, a Federalist anti-war lobbyist who grew up on a Pennsylvania farm but is now trying to blend with high class society to gain favor with politicians:
“I am not a Tory. I just think it would be devastatingly unwise for our country to take on the British in warfare.”
He speaks well and with complete sentences. The trouble I had with him was expressing his efforts at sounding high class. Without a huge history lesson, it’s around this time that what we know as the British accent first started. People of high class wanted to separate themselves from everyone else so they chose to start dropping their “r”s. I originally tried to reflect that in writing but it looked like this:
“I am not a Tory. …to take on the British in wa’fa’e.”
The “r”s in “Tory” and “British” are strong so they could stay but how do I relax the “r”s in “warfare?” I tried other spellings, like “wohfayre” to express how he says it, but that’s just going to cause confusion to the reader. Ultimately, I decided to write this character with the full English words and just added this to his description in the book:
“His voice was smooth but he jumped between dropping his ‘r’s and not, as if he was new to the effort or was trying to hide it.”
This could very well defend the “He’s French” approach, and people have done that. I chose to have a blend of methods. Here’s Judge Philson, an Irish associate county judge and brigadier general of the militia:
“You best practice sayin’ General over Judge. We’ve drill in three days time lad,”…”Maybe this time you’ll find the loadin’ end of your musket.”
I chose to drop the “g”s because readers are more used to that and shouldn’t be distracted by it. I used “lad” to help with the Irish tone but did not turn “of” into “o'” and kept “You” instead of saying “ya.” For me this is because I hear him trying to make sure he pronounces those words to ironically sound less Irish, but I don’t know how the reader will take it. I could help with a prompt there like I did with Bullfinch but decided not to stress the reader with too much focus on language.
My overall recommendation is DON’T OVERDO IT. Your readers will take the cues or not, and every once in awhile it might be good to remind them of the character’s origins, but for the most part it’s best to make sure the dialogue flows smoothly.
Good luck. Share some examples of your characters’ dialogue in the comments. How did you approach their accents? Be sure to subscribe as well for blog updates.