What are people's thoughts on how to best convey a character's accent? We would seem to have a choice of trying to phonetically spell exactly what the character is saying, or we can write their dialogue as normal and mentioning the qualities of the accent.

As an example I present to you the accent of Newfoundland

You don't necessarily have to use phonetic spelling to convey accent -- you can get the reader to hear the accent by playing with the use of idiom and cadence. For example, in West Virginia it is very common to identify something that needs to be done by saying "needs done."

For example: "Your homework still needs done."

Stuff like that goes straight to accent, and you only need to do it a little (the more you do it the more cartoonish it feels to people who are unused to the dialect).

Dialects grow irritating. So I guess it depends on how long they are going to be talking.

If it's a big part then skip it and give it a mention. As ubersoft says, idiomatic references can reinforce the mention.

Personally, I love it when authors will portray accents phonetically.

I've also been overwhelmingly informed that the VAST MAJORITY of readers do not share my love of this. XD

Therefore: Establish the accent early, if you MUST do it phonetically, provide it as an in-story example that's vivid enough the reader will retain it, and then never write it phonetically ever again.

One example I've used in a short story set to be published this year:


I find phonetically written stuff kind of annoying in long stretches. If it's just a few lines, like maybe the character talking through a mouthful of food or having a swollen mouth or something like that, I can enjoy it. If the character will *always* have dialog that's spelled weird or has weird grammar, I probably won't like it. That being said, I think you should do you on this. I don't think there's a "best" way to do anything. Just the way you find engaging to write; readers will have a variety of responses.

"Feersum Engine" by Ian Banks is told entirely in a phonetically spelled accent. It was great. It was also the only time that much accent worked for me--aside from Shakespeare plays.

I agree with those who think just enough accent should be used to leave an impression and no more.

I don't mind short bursts of dialogue that is phonetically written. I really like a lot of authors' approach where they have usual dialogue, but will say how a character said a certain word in the dialogue.

Example: "Put that in the wash." Anna said warsh, not wash, and that extra letter always drove me insane.

Something like that. Then next time the character Anna says wash, I'll automatically read it warsh instead.

I used to try and write accents out, then my editor came along and wagged a finger at me. Now I just indicate the accent as a short descriptor when the person in question speaks up for the first time (she spoke in a heavy Irish brogue, etc) and otherwise try to incorporate some phrases that are typical for said accent. For instance, my Australian says 'bull dust', the Irishwoman says 'your man' and so on.

I think you could do this one of two ways. With something that would be a familiar accent to your audience, just identify the accent in the narrative (like if your book is directed mainly to American audiences, who know what a Texan accent is, just say "Tammy's thick Texan accent" etc.) because then the reader will be able to envision it for themselves. You could also pick just a word or two to "phonetically" accent to give the impression of the speaker's overall accent (like always dropping the "g" on words like "somethin" or "goin"). I definitely wouldn't accent every single word because that gets visually annoying and wearying to decipher.

If done well, dialogue written phonetically rocks. I'm thinking - Mark Twain and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

However, heavy accents are not exactly timeless. I struggle through lots of Shakespeare's dialogue. (The fact that he invented a lot of his words doesn't make it easier.)

It also works better if the reader has some familiarity with the accent/type of speech that you are trying to portray. I can imagine a person outside North America really struggling through some of Mark Twain's southerner accents.

I think part of it again comes down to what you want to achieve, that and what you can get away with. I mean if you want a character with an accent so thick nobody understands him/her, obviously go wild.

For others, there is... tricks you can employ. In particular pelpoe dnot awlyas pay mcuh attention to what exactly they read. The brain can parse a lot of things unconsciously, one way of doing the writing is to try and lean on that. I mean a general aim for a lot of styles of writing is making the reader's mind/brain/imagination do most of the heavy lifting.

Really you don't have to be authentic, I'd certainly agree there. You just have to make the illusion of the accent.

It goes back to my thoughts on how certain things are just plain easier to pull off. In a base sense, no accent is easier than an accent and everyone knows a lisp when they read one. Nothing without cost.

Personally, I avoid phonetic spellings and just write down what the character is saying. Broken or cut-off words, weird syntax, colloquial twistings of words, patterns, word choices, abbreviations and word-smooshings like 'gonna' - I use all of these. But I don't spell them phonetically.

Part of the problem is that spelling a word phonetically does not mean that your readers are going to hear it the same way. You write it the way that your ear hears it, but different accents will interpret and hear those phonemes differently, so ultimately you're going to have limited success at best.

It's also a barrier for the reader, because they have to 'tune their ear' to the dialogue/text. Because of this, I'd say that if you're going to do it, do a /lot/ of it rather than just a little, so the reader can get into the sound of it. That's why stories written entirely in phonetic dialect work well - your spend the time to tune your ear early on and you're okay for the rest. But spots here and there are just annoying, because you have to re-adjust your ear all the time and never quite get into the flow or rhythm of it. The accent should be at least passingly familiar to the reader to be easy to read, though, and like lifesharpener says, they're time-limited.

I tend to avoid barriers for readers wherever I can, and dialects are not a challenge I relish, so I run away. Faaaaar away.

I think the key to accents is to write them lightly and phonetically were necessary.

Some of the characters in Refuge of Delayed Souls have a broad Lancashire accent and though I never use dialect or write it thickly it stands out stronger because the other characters have no accent.

I think the use of sayings when a character speaks helps to convey a strong accent.

ie. "if you had half a brain you would be an ape" does not need to be written as, "if tha'd hafe a brain, tha'd be an ape"

to get the message across :)

I have a few characters with extremely thick accents, and I was advised several times to tone the phonetics down, that everyone hates them, that they'll drive away readers, and that the "right" way is to drop them.

I did not take this advice, because I liked reading them with phonetic accents.

I realize I'm going against the majority in this thread, but if I may be a bit trite, you should be writing the story that you like to read, even if that means some readers are alienated. It's okay to alienate some readers, you are allowed to do that. It's okay to lose some readers who hate phonetic accents with a passion.

At the end of the day, the readers who like reading my serial are the ones who like my writing. That's not a moral judgement, and I definitely don't begrudge the readers I lose "becoss dey don' loik readin' dese characters". It's not personal, it's just not for them, and that's perfectly fine by me.

"At the end of the day, the readers who like reading my serial are the ones who like my writing."

While there is a terrible path that sentiment can lead to, it is one I can get behind. Someone might be able to be generally popular, but nobody can be universally popular.

I've said it in the physical world, and I'll say it here. I write for those who will read the stories, not people who won't.

Pleasing your audience and not pandering to people who aren't your audience is a good idea, quick example, if your audience loves your fantastical fantasy, don't change it to be less fantastical.

I realize I'm going against the majority in this thread, but if I may be a bit trite, you should be writing the story that you like to read, even if that means some readers are alienated. It's okay to alienate some readers, you are allowed to do that. It's okay to lose some readers who hate phonetic accents with a passion.

I agree with this 100%, actually.

It depends on your reasons for writing. Everyone should write what they enjoy reading, yes, but if you want to attract a wide audience, some compromise might be necessary.

That's very true Chrys, and I suppose I should qualify my statements a little bit. There is a little bit of leeway as far as style goes, and a small(ish) change like this would certainly fall into that leeway, but I see so many authors who end up losing their voices completely by trying to cater to readers.

Concessions to an audience are perfectly fine, but I do believe that authors can run the risk of sacrificing *everything* that makes them unique in order to create a work they think will please the most readers, and that the subsequent work is usually bland and boring. Both extremes can be bad, I-will-change-nothing and I-will-change-anything, but I personally encounter far more would-be authors who fall into the latter trap than the former.

My personal solution is to make a quick mention of it, then just occasionally drop a phonetic reference to it. Or maybe all her "of"s come out "ov" or something. Another thing you can do, especially if your world is a real-world analog, is to drop words or phrases that are only used by certain people in certain parts of the world. A generic Latino-American accent can be indicated by the use of "tia" by an American, for example.