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Creating Character Voice, Part 2:  Accents and dialect

See Part 1: Making voices distinctive

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.

‘Alreet, pet. What you up to here, then?’ The red-haired man sauntered onto the balcony, watching them all with his cold coal eyes.

‘Niall,’ West grinned, ‘Got a present for you.’

Niall with the Geordie accent cast a dismissive look over the tableau. ‘Not a present I really want, Cael, ya wazzock. I want t’other brother.’

‘We’ll get him,’ West said confidently. ‘But I thought–’

‘You shouldn’t,’ said Niall drily. ‘You don’t do it very well.’

‘Now look here, Frazer,’ West began to sneer.

‘Nee, ya daft fucker.’ Niall Frazer’s laconic Geordie drawl was suddenly thicker; hard and unyielding. ‘You look. We were here for the older one, and this one’s not a bleedin’ gift. Divvint give us grief. Go wrong with me, West, and you’ll know aaall about it.’

Brush Strokes

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.

‘This,’ said Mundy, after a meaningful pause, ‘is the best your endeavours can provide?’

‘Uh. Yeah.’

Mundy motioned one hand into the air with studied grace as he raised his brows. ‘I don’t–what is that term? Maintain surveillance.’ It was odd how he said it, like it was an adopted foreign phrase.

‘I just thought–’

‘Perhaps one or two. I have heard that McKillen was brewing an intrigue of some sort.’

‘She’s in the Grampians, isn’t she?’

‘Yes. And there was… who was it? Some personage at Magdalene’s.’

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.

And when it’s dark, when you fly fly fly, do the bugs taste different, the ones near the moon?

A little, concedes the swift, but he doesn’t know the words to describe how. More moon-y, you know.

Do you miss the ground, do you look at it and wonder what it would be like?

Oh no. The ground is the enemy. The things with teeth live there, and the moving Human nests, and the ground is death, you know that.

Oh, of course, oh, yes, I know, I know, but I stop there sometimes, sometimes, tasty things down there, danger too, I know that. Not stupid, me, little but not stupid.

The swift cocks its head. Brave, maybe.

The martin preens. Maybe.

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.

Next – Part 3: Revealing story through voice

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