1. Anomally
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    Anomally Member

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    Writing with an Accent

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Anomally, May 19, 2008.

    I have this character, who's British and I'm just not sure how to put his accent down on paper, so that the character has a unique "voice" during conversations, without going overboard.

    His accent may be softened, he spent five years in Canada, but he still speaks differently than my other characters and I just don't know how to illustrate that through writing.

    Any ideas? Even some pointers would be awesome.

    Thanks very much,
    Anomally
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    The best answer is generally, don't try. You have enoughg on your hands with believable phrasing, but trying to show thye accent itself is nearly always a mistake.

    Some very experienced authors can manage it successfully, but even many professionals fall flat in the attempt.
     
  3. Cobra517
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    Cobra517 New Member

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    Okay, you can do this. But you have to be very careful. First off, you need to do a lot of listening.


    Listen to the way real Brits talk--like, "Well then, I should be going. Cheerio, old chap!"

    You know, stuff like that.

    I'm assuming they still call cigarettes "fags," and if so, what a ripe opportunity for a joke!!!

    If I were you, I'd go rent something that is purely Brittish, like Monty Python or something. Then listen to the way the characters talk, the words they use, and you'll pick up enough to help you shape your character's voice.

    Anyway, that's my two cents worth. Good luck with the story!
     
  4. Al B
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    Al B Senior Member

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    Being British myself, I'd caution you not to go too cliched with stuff. I noticed in your original post you used what would be regarded as an Americanism by most British people, when you say 'he speaks differently than...'. whereas a typical British person would say something along the lines of 'he speaks differently to..'. so what we are talking about here, is pretty subtle differences in diction and phrasing if you want a believable character.

    That said, we don't all go around with plums in our mouths using correct grammar and sounding like we're a relative of the Queen, but neither do we all sound like Cockneys, which seem to be the two accents that appear in any Hollywood interpretation of what British people talk like. A great deal of American culture and diction used on TV programmes shown in the UK is picked up by younger people, who are far more likely to want to use such phrasing, so often there is little difference at all in younger people.

    Which means you might be better off basing the difference upon the character's attitudes, in order to highlight the difference, with just the odd linguistic trait here and there to make him sound a little different. Perhaps have him say 'mate' rather than 'pal' or 'buddy' as an American might, or be a little more reserved and reticent (a cliche English trait which the actor Hugh Grant hams up a lot of the time). Other things to look out for are expletives and exclamations; a British person might say 'bollocks', rather than 'that's a bunch of crap', or 'piss off', rather than 'go f*ck yourself'

    Here's a suggestion to help you: Get hold of a few films which use several British actors, and by that, I mean films with largely British production, rather than a few Brits in an American film, as that's where the unrealistic 'Cor Blimey Guv'nor' type cliches start creeping in. This will give you the meter of how British characters sound.

    A good choice would be something like the 1970 Robert Aldrich movie 'Too Late the Hero' which although quite old and set in WW2, features a lot of believable British characters using very natural and believable English dialogue, and interestingly the story also centres on the clash between these characters and a US Navy officer, so it will provide some useful inspiration for the differences too.

    On top of all that, it's a great film with some great actors in it, including Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Michael Caine, Ian Bannen, Harry Andrews, Ronald Fraser etc. Interestingly, later films which include intense character studies, such as Aliens and Southern Comfort owe quite a lot to the plot of it, so it's worth watching for that factor as well.

    If you fancy a more modern film with primarily English characters, you could choose Dog Soldiers, 28 Days later, Sean of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. Any of those will give you modern phraseology for a variety of Brit characters, and they're all great films worth having too.

    Hope that helps a bit. Shout up if you need more pointers.

    Al
     
  5. Cobra517
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    Cobra517 New Member

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    Go with '28 Days Later' if you like horror!


    That movie ROCKS THE HOUSE!!!!
     
  6. Smithy
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    Smithy Senior Member

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    Al B, I couldn't have put it better myself. I would also say that if you choose an accent outside the american mainstream for British accents: say a geordie or brummie accent, then don't try and write it out as it will look incomprehensible. I also wouldn't recommend Monty Python for accents, as they tend to play up to the stereotype accents rather a lot, so to imitate them would border on caricature.
     
  7. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    writing dialog using local idioms and phrasing is not the same as writing an accent... the former only requires choosing words and wording that are not the same as you would use in ordinary conversation... the latter requires you to change the spelling of those words, to indicate how they actually sound...

    the first is done all the time, but it takes a good knowledge of how people from that part of the world speak, to pull it off successfully... if you don't have that knowledge, it would be foolish to attempt it, since you'll be opening yourself up to ridicule from those who do, for getting it wrong...

    the second is almost always a bad idea, since reading a book's worth of odd spellings is annoying to the max to most readers and the writers who try it usually don't get it right, anyway... sure, there are rare exceptions that show it can be done successfully, but they're so few and far between, and done only by writers of such exceptional expertise that you shouldn't expect to match them...

    as for a 'british' accent, there isn't any single model... have you any idea how many there actually are?... there's the 'public school' accent, the cockney, the northern, east midlands, liverpool, east anglian, yorkshire, lancaster, and so on...

    so, first, you'd have to know where your character was born and raised, and where he went to school... then, there's that canadian influence... is it french-canadian, or english-canadian?... where in canada did he spend that 5 years and how much of it was spent in one place, with people speaking in a single 'canadian' accent?...

    now, try to write words with any of those accents and see what you come up with... will you spell all words with an 'ow' sound like 'about' as 'aboot' the way a non-french-aligned canadian or a scotsman would say them?... how will you spell the slightly different 'snooty-sounding' [to most americans, anyway] inflection an etonian would give to his words, compared to the major difference you'd hear from a limey, or guy from manchester?... see what i mean?...

    so, my best advice is to not bother with accent in any case, and not even make your guy british, if you haven't talked to and listened to enough folks from the place he's supposed to be from, to get it right... that old saw, 'write what you know' applies to this aspect of writing more than any other, imo...

    love and hugs, maia
     
  8. Anomally
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    Anomally Member

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    Thanks very much for all your advice. It makes sense, writing with an accent is difficult and can be boring to readers... As to changing the nationality of my character... That might be hard to do, I seem to have fixed him in my mind as British and nothing else... I can change him I suppose, but somehow I feel that his personality might change with it. And I'd have to rewrite his entire history, plus there's some bits in the story that revolve around him being from Britain...
     
  9. Kylo
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    Kylo Member

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    I hate typing in accents because my spell check nags my head off for it. The problem with accents in general though is that some of them can't be spelled because there really isn't a way to spell each and every possible sound a human can make. You could try, but I'm sure hardly anyone would know what you're talking about. I think it's better to mild the accent writing to where it's tolerable to deal with and just indicate the accent in the character's desc.
     
  10. Wintermute
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    Wintermute Banned

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    Not to be rude, but I would ignore mama's advice. If your character's heritage is important to the story, then write him as truthfully as possible. I wouldn't totally ditch the accent or his British roots. That's the sort of advice you're likely to get from teachers in an MFA program. "Write what you know" is possibly the most misunderstood cop out in the literary world.

    Writing is your own world. Do what you'd like with it. Of course, you should have a firm grasp on how Brits talk. I'd suggest watching several BBC documentaries for a grasp on the different dialects.
     
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  11. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    May I suggest that a more polite way to phrase it is, "I disagree with mammamaia. If your character's heritage..."

    Please respect the other members of the forum.

    What Maia is saying, though, is that unless you are willing to do the research to learn what phrasing is appropriate for a particular cultural group - and make sure you have adequately defined that group - your character's speech is unlikely to sound convincing to people who know that culture. You are always best writing what you know.

    Furthermore, trying to portray accents, as opposed to dialect, is almost always a bad idea.
     
  12. Wintermute
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    Wintermute Banned

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    Understanding how one talks before trying to portray them truthfully is a given. There's no real square advice there. Nothing original.

    My comment was directed at the way Mama was telling the OP how he should write his story. Telling him to totally change his character and story is ridiculous. Futhermore, writing is never a bad idea, especially when you're breaking convention.

    Write what you know should NEVER be taken at face value. The definition of "knowing" is not so black and white. If the OP, for example, knows for a fact that Brits use the word "Fag," without ever having been to Britain, he still knows it.
     
  13. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Let me clarify. If you disagree with an opinion, that is your prerogative. But do so respectfully.
     
  14. Wintermute
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    Wintermute Banned

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    I haven't been disrespectful. I'm merely fervent in my opinion. If I was being disrespectful I might have filled the post with several asterisked words. I've spent too many decades in this business seeing talented authors dissuaded by shoddy advice.
     
  15. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    thanks for your support and 'getting my back' cog!... it's a shame someone with supposedly so much experience couldn't disagree politely with another decades-long experienced writer...

    love and extra hugs, m
     
  16. Amor
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    Amor Member

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    I actually have a British character in one of my stories, but I don't go overboard with his British accent. I would recommend studying the way British people talk. For instance, my aunt lives in Britian and I've been emailing her with questions like, "how would you say this...?", "what's another word for ____ ?", etc. Primary sources are the way to go, I think. I understand what you mean by it being difficult to change the character, since you've already got a certain image about that character. Accent or no accent is a debatable subject, and if it gets too difficult to maintain a believable accent, then you might have to end up making changes.
     
  17. Chris Huff
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    Chris Huff New Member

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    My advice would be to check into British phrases and spelling. They can go a long way to give your character a unique voice and add verisimilitude to the piece. Avoid phonetic spelling though, think of the poor reader.

    "Bangers and mash" for sausage and potatoes. Lorry instead of truck.
    Lift instead of elevator. Biscuit instead of cookie. Labour instead of labor. Replacing "c" with "s" in some words (be absolutely sure it's the right ones), like defense / defence.

    Simple little things like that can show the character's foreignness to an American audience without spelling phonetically.
     
  18. A-Frame
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    A-Frame New Member

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    I would suggest reading some novels by British authors (Nick Hornby comes to mind) and see how they deal with it. They don't write their dialogue with a British accent, though they do have different spellings and phrases. I would say to definitely incorporate some of the common phrasings into the dialogue, but not to go overboard with it as it may come off as trying too hard. As for actually trying to write an accent into the dialogue, I wouldn't. I wouldn't do it phonetically or with british spelling if the rest of the novel uses american spelling. What would be the point of putting Labour or Colour into his dialogue where you say labor or color elsewhere? It's not like you actually hear the u when it's spoken, I think it's probably just distracting to switch from one spelling to the other.
     
  19. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i have to agree with a-frame... it makes no sense to use two different spellings... if the work is meant for the uk market, use british spellings and if for the us market, use theirs... it's the market that determines which spelling to use, not the characters [unless you're including text of written messages]...
     
  20. Orianna2000
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    In the last year I've written extensively for Doctor Who (fan-fiction). Because it's a British show, I had to figure out how to deal with the characters' accents. The best way to learn was to immerse myself in the culture: listening to dialogue from the show, watching other British shows, reading stories by British writers, talking to people who live in the UK.

    One thing I learned was to minimize the use of spelling to indicate accent. It gets too distracting and detracts from the story you're trying to tell. I use the occasional unusual contraction to indicate speech rhythm, but the best way to show that they talk differently is to phrase dialogue differently (meaning the order of the words) and to use appropriate expressions, slang, and vocabulary. There are a lot of words that mean different things in the UK, and they have many interesting phrases that we don't. Some are subtle, but can make a big difference in the authenticity of your story.

    The more you write "British-style" the more you learn, and the easier it comes to you. (Indeed, I often find myself using words or expressions that are British, not American! Confuses the heck out of my family.) Some of their grammar is different, too. I still don't know everything, so I always have someone from the UK look over my stories when I've finished, to be sure they're authentic enough.

    I was going to list some examples, but there are simply way too many to try and post here. However, I'll put some helpful links below. If you'd like, you could read some of my stories to see the differences in dialogue. Or I could offer some private "Brit-picking" help, through email.

    An article on Americans writing British characters, here.
    A friendly community where you can ask questions about anything British, here.
    British slang, here.
    British grammar, here.

    Hope this helps!
     
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  21. Iron_Seitz
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    Iron_Seitz Member

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    I think I'll throw in my two cents here, although how much they apply to anyone else's writing is purely my guess...

    I have a British character in my novel but, because I admitted to myself that I had never met more than a dozen truly British people in my life, I attempted to make his speech as normal to my own as possible without completely throwing his character out the window. I might have thrown in a few conservative "Britishisms": "boot" instead of "trunk", I think he refers to a group of people as "gents" at some point. (If there's anyone who's British here correct me on that one if I'm wrong...) But I tend to take the hands-off approach on accents for major characters.

    Later on in the book I have a supporting character who's Afrikaner. I did a little research on common slang and common enunciation and gave it a whirl. I think it turned out ok, but I'm probably not the best judge of that...

    Anyway, I guess I do accents on a case-by-case situation. Does that contradict everything else I said in that post? Yeah, probably. Whatever.
     
  22. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    In general,you should not try to write accents. If you do dialects, which are localized word and phrase usage, only do it if you have properly researched them.

    Be aware that dialects can be very localized indeed. There is really no such thing as the British dialect, or the (American) Southern dialect. You may need to narrow it down to a state, a county, a city, even a neighborhood.

    Accents, phoneticized spelling of a word, are generally painful to read, and rarely worth the effort.
     
  23. Daisy
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    Daisy New Member

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    I read an article once that said that if you introduce the character in a tag as having an accent, then the reader hears the accent from then on in his/her head without you actually having to spell it out or constantly bring attention to it. After reading the article, I paid more attention when I read and found it was true, at least for me.
     
  24. NaCl
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    NaCl Contributing Member Contributor

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    You people scared me with all this talk about accents and British authenticity....so in my current manuscript, I just put a bullet in the head of my cockney! Problem solved! LOL


    Orianna...that is one of the most helpful posts I have ever read. Thank you for the great links.
     
  25. Alice_Loves_Hatter
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    I've got to agree with this; even as a British girl, I can't write for a geordie character, because I'm from Leeds, it's just too different.
    If you really want an authentic British Character, decide where s/he's from, and listen to the accents of people from that area. More importantly, as many people have said, listen to the grammatical structures and phrases they use, but try not to overdo the stereotypes...
    "E by gum" is not that common a phrase in Yorkshire, nor is "C'or blimey" that common in London. Once you've decided where they're from, hunt yourself down a Brit haha, have them look over it when possible, just the dialogue, and see if they'd re-arrange phrases or change words for more local slang.

    Ever read trainspotting? Man, that was DIFFICULT to read. Even with most of my family being Scottish and understanding the slang etc, it took a lot of effort and reading out loud haha.

    x.S.x
     

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