Thursday, May 20, 2010

Character Dialects and Accents

Character dialects/accents/drawls can be tricky.  You want your character to feel native to their surroundings, or obviously not native, but how do you balance the clues? 

One project of mine (currently shelved), is set in Texas, mostly because it's where I'm from and I'm comfortable describing it.  I wanted one of my characters to really come across southern--a real country boy--but one of my beta readers commented that my replacing the -ing at the end of words with -in' drove her crazy.  She said, just say he's southern, we'll get it. Describe his drawl... use a word or two characteristic to the south... etc. 

I've read some stories with major dialect infused in the dialogue, and it didn't bother me.  To me, it got the point across, and kept in my mind that this is the way the character sounds.  As long it's consistent throughout the book, I didn't mind.  But I took what this trusted beta reader said as a law, and quickly amended all of that characters dialogue... and I can't even remember if I fully explained elsewhere about his drawl.  And now I don't like the idea that future readers would take it as if this character is actually saying words like "looking" or "fixing to" completely, because he's not........

What's your take on the written dialect or accent issue?  If your character has one of note, do you incorporate it into the dialogue, or just mention it and hope the reader remembers?  

13 comments:

  1. Personally...how he/she talks is how they talk, whether its at the beginning or end of the book. I would keep the drawl the entire way through the manuscript. :)

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  2. I've a little hesitant to say throw it back in because I've read some books where it drove me crazy. Mostly it was Cockney)sp?) because I was reading only Brit books there for a while, but it really slowed my reading. Could you maybe infuse a little without having every -ing cut off? Most Southerners don't cut off every one, anyway. There's usually a few key phrases we say all the time that we cut short. (Like "fixin' to.") I'd go with that.

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  3. when it comes to my profession of translating books, I must admit I love when I have to deal with different accents in a novel. Imagine translating different accents into a single foreign language. It means you as a translator have to find different accents in that foreign language as well. I love that task, since it gives me the opportunity to be creative.

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  4. "Fixing to" -- *shudder* Living in Georgia, I hear that one ten times a day!

    I agree with your beta reader. I sometimes use dialect in my writing, but I think it needs to be kept to a minimum. One or two examples establish the dialect, and after that you have to rely on the reader to recognize the accent in their head, instead of by virtue of the phonetic spelling.

    In my Let's Talk Blogfest entry two days ago, I use dialect for MC Dani, but only when she makes two comments to her bar customer. I don't use it when she's talking to the other main character. I hoped, as I wrote it that way, that the reader would "hear" how her voice changes from the tense undertones she uses with Nina to the syrupy tone she takes on when talking to someone else.

    For me, writing in dialect is just another literary device that should be used sparingly as a sound tool. Overuse will call too much attention to itself and disengage the reader from the story.

    Great post!

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  5. Yeah, I'm not a fan of big dialects either. My books are set in the South, but I avoided all inflections in the dialogue. (My characters are all college educated, which meant their drawl would've been subtle anyway.) I would think a little here and there - such as using "in'" instead of "ing" - would be fine.

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  6. Most of the time dialect does not bother me but I've read plenty of reviews in which others hated it and they were turned off by the whole thing.

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  7. There are different ways of portraying speech rhythms, too. Cheesy as it may sound, hit a bookstore and read some of Rogue's dialogue from X-men. It's overdone sometimes; other times, it's just a rhythm thing, and word choices. Skim "To Kill a Mockingbird." Watch southern movies, listen to southern people. But I agree with everyone else :D Key words sprinkled here and there will do it.

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  8. I tend to put the dialect in the dialogue because I think it feels more authentic to who they are and how they talk. It wouldn't bother me to have the ing replaced with an in'.

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  9. I would carry it throughout. Depending on the dialect it might take me a minute to get used to it but as long as the characters stay true I would read it and then couldn't imagine them not using the dialect!

    I never realized how southern someone could be until I moved to Texas! Have fun writing it!

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  10. I would use the person's language rather than their accent to convey this. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood isn't a bad example of this - I have no idea how authentic the language is, as I've never been to Louisiana, but as I read, I certainly never forgot that the characters were southern.

    And you're all making me jealous, someday I really want to see the American South! All those great writers, and interestingly-named food. . .

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  11. Yup, stay consistent. It would be weird if they lost their accent halfway through the book.

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  12. Yes. Use dialect. It takes a bit getting used to, but we can do it, and it starts to sound like the character. I read parts of Huck Finn out loud to HS juniors. It was a challenge at first. But, one boy said, "Once you get into it, you do really well." Write with authenticity.

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  13. I adore novels that stay true to the dialect throughout. It may just be me, but if I start reading a book then don't start again for a few days I sometimes forget who had what accent. If it's not present throughout, I then need to find the page where said character's voice is described.

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