Writing distinctive character voices sometimes means writing people who have accents.
This is an area of writing fraught with challenge, because it’s so easy to overdo the dialect – and to fall into stereotyped phrases and representations.
PG Wodehouse always writes dialect and accent hilariously, even if he is playing with stereotypes for comedic effect. Lord Emsworth’s dour Scottish head gardener, Angus McAllister, doesn’t speak often but read out loud as written, the accent is spot on. The Frenglish of Anatole the Cook in a passion is funny no matter how often I read it. Wodehouse had a genius for character voice, however you look at it, and I recommend him on that score alone.
But you have to know just how much creative phonetic spelling to use for such things. It’s a delicate balance, and it’s not the route I choose.
Using slang and a reader
With Niall Frazer, the Geordie villain in Ravenfall, I watched a lot of YouTube videos of Geordie speakers talking about their language to get the rhythm of it, and pick up local slang. (Watching Vera didn’t hurt either.) Once I’d revisited his dialogue with a gentle Geordie brush, I asked a friend from Newcastle UK to read those sections to make sure they sounded authentic. A few minor tweaks later and I was done.
Among my characters I’ve written a 300 year old vampire (Mundy, from The Opposite of Life), and more recently I wrote a couple of medieval characters in the short story “Hoorfrost” (from Scar Tissue and Other Stories) set in 1258.
My main approach in these instances is to simply write the dialogue that conveys what’s necessary for the scene. Then later I go back and put in little ‘brush strokes’ to indicate accent or language from a particular time.
For Mundy, I wrote the dialogue and then read several chapters of Gulliver’s Travels. With a fresh sense of word order, typical phrasing and a few examples of standard greetings and terms from the period, I slightly altered the wording here and there, put in one or two more archaic words he was likely to still use, and left it at that. I didn’t try to slavishly adopt the language of the period – I felt it would only sound stilted in the modern setting – but I aimed to convey a man (or a vampire) not quite in his time.
I’ve even experimented with writing birds talking to each other. For that, I wanted to capture a sense of breathlessness, flitting, flying – of a short, exhilarating life, lived fast – and yet still have two different voices.
The pretty martin, blue feathers flashing among the black and white, asks so very many questions.
Whatever your approach, add the accent and dialect details sparingly, and dab a few more examples in here and there as you go until you get the effect you’re looking for.