History/Genealogy

Start Your Week Off Write: Writing Characters with Accents


Hugh Laurie, image courtesy Kristin Dos Santos, Creative Commons

I’m not a big House fan. In fact I’m not big on medical dramas in general, but I admit I do tune in to House periodically just to hear the dialogue. I think Hugh Laurie does a flawless American accent. Many people in America don’t know he is British, although he’s had a long and brilliant career there. His speaking pattern is also perfect for his character, Dr. Gregory House. Flippant, snarky, grating and growling, Laurie nails the character vocally and we are captivated. You don’t get taken out of the story when Laurie lapses into his native accent because he never does.

This is not the case with a lot of other film accents.  Some notables include Sean Connery in The Wind and The Lion where he plays a Middle Eastern Berber mufti with his obligatory Scottish accent. Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson played Russians in K19: The Widowmaker sounding like an American and an Irishman and it distracts from the intense storyline. The crown princes of distracting accents in film are Kevin Costner and Keanu Reeves. Even the stellar Robert DeNiro has an accent issue in the film The Mission. An eighteenth-century Spanish Jesuit speaking like a Bronx native? But we forgive because hey, it’s DeNiro.

"All I want is 'Enry 'Iggins 'ead."

Why am I thinking about accents? My historical fiction has several and I’m working on keeping the flavor of the characters’ speech without throwing the reader out of the story. My protagonist is a daughter of German immigrants. Her nemesis, her sister-in-law, is lower class Irish. The protagonist’s mentor is a Kentucky woman of pioneer stock and the protag’s husband is a German/Russian immigrant who grew up in New Orleans. Later on she’ll run into college-educated New Englanders, Native Americans and a family of Chinese immigrants. What a cast of accents! Their differing backgrounds are a subplot of the story, so I need to show their mastery of English or lack thereof without getting so phonetically crazy or stereotypically offensive that it becomes hard to read.

Mark Twain was a master of dialect, and in the forward of Huckleberry Finn explains that the use of approximately six dialects was purposeful. Harper Lee reflects the dialectic variations of her Southern characters in To Kill a Mockingbird and the reader is drawn into the story rather than being rattled out by distracting bits of dialogue. If not handled correctly, you can have a dialectic hot mess, as in a novel I recently read about Italian immigrants in New York at the turn of the century. The accents were so overdone in the writing that it took away from the story, and had the added effect of making tragic parts of the story seem comical.

Margo L. Dill gives a great piece of advice, saying you can use key vocabulary that give a flavor of a time or accent without resorting to phonetic accents. “If your character is from England, you write his English accent without spelling out his accent. Instead of your English character saying, “I have to call my attorney immediately.” He would say, “I must ring my solicitor.” In the first example, you hear an American accent. In the second, you hear the English accent – just by using key vocabulary words.” Read Margo’s entire post: 5 Historical Fiction Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them.

Want some more advice for writing character accents and dialects? Check out:

Question: What’s the worst movie accent you’ve heard?

8 replies »

  1. For a double-dose of bad accents, there is the 1990’s film Blown Away that starred Jeff Bridges, Tommy Lee Jones, Forrest Whitaker, and other A-listers in a pretty-awful film, Bridges is a Boston-Irish bomb squad tech and Jones is an Irish bomb-terrorist. It’s a toss-up as to who perpetrates the worst accent… but both are laughably bad.

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  2. Great reminders of how important accent is in books (and movies). I hate when they’re so over-done it takes me out of the story. I have someone from Ireland in one of my novels and I’m constantly going back over the lines to make sure it’s okay. Thanks for the resources!

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