Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Hola, bonjour, hallo, ciao!

Last week, an awesome reader asked - "How far is too far when incorporating an accent into characters?"

This is a great question, because nothing kills a mood in a story faster than wading through text full of words that aren't easily pronounced. Your goal when incorporating accents into a story is to get the reader to hear the character's voice, not be distracted by it.

This can be a tricky balance, but there are several do's and don't's that I think will help. The only real accented character I've ever created is Marta, who is Addison Blakely's best friend in ADDISON BLAKELY, CONFESSIONS OF A PK. (My 2012 YA release with Barbour Books)

Marta was an exchange student from Germany, and a good friend and voice of reason for Addison. Because of her role in the story, her words/dialogue were very crucial. I needed the reader to really hear her point and hear her accent without letting it get carried away.

Here's some of the guidelines I made for myself, based on info given to me in the past through writer's conferences/courses, and based on what I gleaned just by reading novels where the accent was either a success or epic fail.

1. Set the stage up front, then BACK OFF. It's okay to come on a little strong with the accent on the character's first or second appearance in the story. This is setting the stage or establishing the accent/tone of their voice in the reader's head. Then the hard part is this - trusting them to get it, letting go, and not incorporating it NEARLY as often after that.

2. Don't use full lines of italics to show the accent. Italicize a word or two here and there, but keep the rest of the dialogue in regular English. Pick and choose your battles here. LESS IS MORE. In Germany, they say "ja" a lot, instead of "yeah" or "yes". So Marta got to say that a lot, especially at the front of her dialogue blocks, to keep the accent fresh, but that's a tiny word that doesn't distract and isn't hard to say. It reminded the reader periodically to hear her accent without forcing it on them.

3. Be sure you get the language right. If you're giving your character a foreign language or accent, make sure you're getting it correct. Don't just translate from one quick source on the internet or take your friend's word for it - double check because a lot can be lost in translation. You don't want to confuse or offend any readers who might actually be German (or whatever your case might be)

4. There's nothing worse than trying to read through a paragraph of text and having to go slowly because you are struggling to sound out the words or understand what you're reading. (ever tried to read the genealogy in the Old Testament? ::wink::) Too much accent or dialect (dialect is more along the lines of slang rather than an actual foreign language) is burdensome and heavy and confusing to the reader.

An example of dialect:
In the south - "y'all" "fixin' to" etc.

Again, using these words sparingly (I do when I talk every day. Ha. Louisiana girl right here!) is great and sets the stage for your character. But generally speaking, when you have to use too many italics or apostrophe's to write your sentence, it's crossing a line.

Any questions? ;)


  1. Oh, good. I just allowed myself one big sigh of relief. I had done some basic research before starting my Irish character in 'Remembering the Alamo' and you what you said here corresponded with what I had read. I'm very grateful your opinion matched up with mine (it's too late in the ball game to change much dialogue!) and the other resources I pulled from. Thanks so much!