“Pardon Me, Do You Have Any Grey Poupon?”—6 Tips for Writing Accents

Writing accents can be difficult. You don’t want to use words or phrases that are so obscure you have to be a linguist for the FBI to decipher them, nor do you want to use contractions that make your reader stop reading to figure out what in the world that character just said. There’s a fine balance. Here are a few suggestions to help get you started on adding accents to dialogue.

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Column by Jaimie M. Engle, author of new novel, DREADLANDS: WOLF MOON.
Before releasing her debut novel CLIFTON CHASE AND THE ARROW OF LIGHT,
she ran a body shop, modeled bikinis, danced in the Aloha Bowl halftime show,
and managed a hip-hop band. Engle offers a coaching & editing service for aspiring
writers, teaches writing classes, and volunteers with elementary school & library
writing programs. Find her on Twitter.

1. Contractions—If you shorten words, like “What’s ‘e doin’ ‘ere?” it reads more British while “Vat could he vant with her?” is more Russian or even Transylvanian. Contractions force the reader to read the text through the provided accent; however, be certain you don’t overdo it or you’ll lose your audience.

(Submission Checklist: Double-Check These 16 Things Before Sending Your Book Out.)

2. Phrasing—Including stereotypical phrasing, specific to that character, helps the reader to visualize the accent. “Whatever could he want with her, darling?” is a different accent from a different social status than “What the blazes does he want with her?” Or “That’s a bloody foolish thing to do” reads from a different region in the world than “That’s, like, so stupid or something.” Or even, “If ya say so, mate” verses “If ya say so, partner.” These additions keep each character’s dialogue unique and realistic, but can also lend to your accent.

3. Say It—If you just flat out say where the character is from, the reader will be tasked with adding in the accent. I think you should help them with some of the abovementioned ideas, but it’s as easy as: “I don’t know a thing,” she said, her British accent lingering like a wisp of smoke. The hope here is that every time that character speaks, the reader adds the appropriate lilt.

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4. Name Calling—Choose names that reflect heritage. If her name is Olga, we will naturally stereotype her voice as opposed to Brittany or Johnny No Thumbs or Chang. Giving names that hold double meaning or are specific to a culture, time period, or region really help the readers to better hear the accent.

5. Copycat—Look through books like Harry Potter where many accents throughout the world pepper the series, from British to Romanian to Irish, etc., and study how Rowling portrayed each nationality through word choice, character names, and phrasing.

6. Story Time—Read the dialogue aloud to distinguish the desired accents. Sometimes you can hear where you change the sound of a word when you are using different regional dialects. For example, “Get me some wawtar,” comes out more New York then “Git me sum warter,” which sounds more Southern.

(Before you send out your query, look over a submission checklist.)

For an in-depth study, check out books by authors such as Stephen King, who is a genius when it comes to dialogue realism and accents, and James Dashner of the Maze Runner series who is gifted at making each character speak in a unique voice.

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