When you want to make a character stand out, you might be tempted to use phonetic spelling.

But keep in mind that writing accents is challenging.

Because reading them is difficult.

The last thing you want is for the accent of a character to become the main event in your story by having your reader spend so much effort on trying to understand the accent that they completely lose track of the story.

Spelling and pronunciation are two different things.

Oxford defines an accent as “a distinctive way of pronouncing a language, especially one associated with a particular country, area, or social class”.

Everyone speaks in a distinctive way; we simply don’t notice our own accents because they’re ours and we’re used to how we speak.

And even when every one of your readers would spell a word the same way, they’ll pronounce it slightly differently.

You want your dialogue to be a report of the words that were spoken rather than a visual representation of how they were spoken.

Aim to demonstrate the how by other means than distinctive spelling.

The way you render an accent is influenced by your personal experience.

I speak what’s known as Finno-Swedish, a variety of the Swedish language and a closely related group of Swedish dialects spoken in Finland by the Swedish-speaking population as our first language.

I can speak to other Finnish-Swedes and know from what part of the country they are. I can speak with a Swedish person and have a general idea of where they’re from, such as from the south, but I won’t be able to specifically pinpoint where in the south the speaker is from.

When people who don’t speak Swedish or have very limited knowledge of the language, they’ll barely be able to tell the differences in our accents because they haven’t developed an ear for it.

To us, the Finnish-Swede and the Swede, it’s glaringly obvious we’re from different countries.

If you have limited experience in a language, any attempt at mimicking it in writing will seem absurd to a reader with a more experienced ear.

At worst, it can even turn into a parody.

Speech is elastic and we freely borrow from each other and the languages we hear.

Many of us speak to and listen to voices from all over the world, which means that we easily end up borrowing, not just words, but also phrases and pronunciations from each other.

What each speaker defines as accented or not accented is completely relative.

It depends on who you know, what you speak, what you’ve heard and where you’ve been.

Don’t let phonemes trump your action.

By strongly conveying accents through phonetic spelling, you’re letting caricature trump your story.

Take this Hercule Poirot quote from Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot: The Complete Short Stories, as an example: “There is nothing more amazing than the extraordinary sanity of the insane! Unless it is the extraordinary eccentricity of the sane!”

If we turn it into a caricature it starts looking something like this:

Zere iz nozing more amazing than ze extraordinary sanity of ze insane! Unless it iz ze extraordinary eccentricity of ze sane!

If Poirot spoke like this every time he opened his mouth, and this is what we had to read, our focus wouldn’t be on the plot.

instead of focusing on the information being conveyed by the dialogue, the reader will be trying to dig through the odd spelling and trying to understand what is being said.

This is how you bring their suspension of disbelief to a screeching halt.

Does the phonetic spelling render the speech authentic?

Or does it turn it into a horrid caricature that sticks out like a sore thumb in a text that isn’t intended to mock?

A Frenchman, Englishman and Canadian walk into a bar…

And the most realistic way to render our Poirot quote in each of their mouths would be: “There is nothing more amazing than the extraordinary sanity of the insane! Unless it is the extraordinary eccentricity of the sane!”

Conveying accents with phonetic spelling is a distraction, not an enrichment.

If you’ve promised your reader a murder mystery, but what they end up getting is a phonetic lesson in how your Indian, Japanese or Brazilian protagonist pronounces things, you’re going to have very disappointed readers.

And ask yourself this; is your character’s accent truly the most interesting thing about them?

Being from a certain country or region can be an enriching backstory, and can even play into your plot, but is their accent the key to the story?

If it’s on par with how many lumps they take in their tea, then it only needs to be on the page in passing.

Respect your diverse audience.

One big issue with trying to render pronunciation “authentically” is that it can perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

As a writer, you need to examine your own biases when conveying accents.

At the very least, overworked or badly written accents sound more like mockery, and even if you find it amusing, your reader might not.

The best stories make us forget that we’re reading them.

The height of storytelling craft is to so fully suspend your reader’s disbelief that they become completely immersed in your story that they forget they’re processing words on a page.

Every time you force your reader to decipher how something sounds, you risk dragging your reader out of the story.

And if a story is written with a lot of phonetic spelling, your reader may never even get into the immersion stage.

It doesn’t matter how practised you are in hearing a certain kind of accent, reading text when you’re constantly trying to sound it out gets tiring very quickly.

A few well-placed words sprinkled throughout the dialogue are enough to flavour the whole thing.

But what about Trainspotting, a book heavy on the Scottish dialect?

No cap, that’s a hard book to read.

You end up reading things over and over, pausing to think about what was just conveyed, in order to fully understand what’s going on.

Ultimately it’s a rewarding read; when you get used to the slang it becomes a funny, moving and ultimately gritty read.

But I like to read for relaxation, and I couldn’t read several books that were all hard work at once, or even consecutively.

When you’re in the business of writing to make a living, rather than writing for the sake of gaining literary attention, it’s a good idea to assume that your reader wants to do as little work as possible to be as immersed in your world and your story as possible.

‘Aw wonder how yah can faishion to stand thear i’ idleness un war, when all on ’ems goan out! Bud yah’re a nowt, and it’s no use talking—yah’ll niver mend o’yer ill ways, but goa raight to t’ divil, like yer mother afore ye!’

– Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

And in plain English, that’s: I wonder how you can stand there in idleness and worse, when all of them have gone out! But you’re a nobody, and it’s no use talking—you’ll never mend your evil ways, but go straight to the Devil, like your mother before you!

How to get your reader to imagine a character’s accent without letting the phonemes take over.

A little goes a long way, when it comes to colouring your character’s language, so choose strategically.

1. Drops of foreign language

If your character has a different native tongue than what the novel is written in, dropping in a few of their native words here and there will make them sound more foreign.

Agatha Christie achieves this by peppering Poirot’s dialogue with mais oui (yes, of course) and mon ami (my friend) and non (no).

And remember: less is more.

Use foreign words at moments in the dialogue when they either slip out without the character realising, such as at a moment of heightened emotion.

Cussing is a good place to add foreign words, but bear in mind that there are a lot of curse words that have international appeal, so even non-native English speakers easily pick up on them.

After all, one of the first things you tend to learn from a new language is the cuss words (not to mention that they’re fun to use).

One example of this is in the TV show Firefly, where the characters always curse in Mandarin and without subtitles.

The idea is to depict an integrated futuristic culture, as well as a way to get away with cursing.

And though it might seem cute on the surface, it seems quite illogical to multilingual people – I’ve lamented over this fact with many a peer.

Confining your use of a foreign language to the cursing alone makes it seem like that’s the only thing Mandarin was good for in Joss Whedon’s world, which feels disrespectful to Mandarin.

My nearest comparison is Urdu and Hindi, which both use quite a few English words. Partly because these old languages don’t have convenient words for fairly recent inventions, partly because the English word is easier than the original word, and partly because they have a legacy of colonisation.

So, it feels derivative when the only thing a language is good for is cursing, as it doesn’t imitate something people all over the world do regularly.

2. Skipping consonants and contractions

Here and there, you can sprinkle in some places where your character drops a consonant or a contraction.

Innit, ‘appen, summat, nowt, for example.

Depending on the level of fluency, your character can also speak in a more deliberate way and use it is fun instead of it’s fun, I am coming instead of I’m coming, and so on.

Choose your spots well and don’t overdo it.

3. Another character’s observations

If you’ve got an American protagonist who heads to Scotland, it makes sense for the locals to notice the foreigner based on how they speak.

An American character could commend a French character on how excellent their English is by mentioning that their accent is barely discernible.

You can also have characters making (correct or incorrect) guesses about where another character is from; like when I lived in Pakistan, everyone assumed I was from London by virtue of being a foreigner.

You can also have characters judge other characters based on their way of speaking, such as noting that they’re upper or lower class.

4. Idioms and expressions

Idioms and sayings can provide triggers for your reader to imagine the way a character speaks.

When you do this, do your research though.

If you use these expressions wrong, you’re going to alienate the people who have a practised ear for that type of speech.

5. Lost in translation

Grammatical structures vary between languages and when people learn a new language, the grammatical structures they’re used to can easily carry over.

For example, in Russian, verbs such as “to be” or “is” are inferred from context and that’s why Russians who aren’t fluent in English will often say “she good woman” rather than “she is a good woman” or “you go shop tomorrow” rather than “you are going shopping tomorrow”.

6. Stories from other places

  • One of the things we Scandinavians love to say is that there’s no bad weather, only poor clothing. And every foreigner who spends a winter here will hear this expression over and over again.
  • When I lived in Pakistan, the drink Rooh Afzah was a staple at iftar during Ramadan. It tasted like feet. We also used to put Mitchell’s chilli-garlic sauce on everything – they even served it alongside ketchup at McDonald’s!
  • I once had an Ethiopian friend who had grown up on spicy food and used to sprinkle Tabasco on regular bread to “give it more flavour”.
  • Conversely, when I once suggested to a Finnish schoolmate that he might consider adding pepper to plain boiled potatoes when he’d expressed he didn’t like salt, his response was “Ooh, spicy!”.

For a writer, it’s these kinds of small details and stories that enrich any character and convey their culture and heritage (rather than butchering their dialogue with odd spelling).

There are more interesting ways to show where someone’s from than an accent.

Your focus should be on moving the story forward, not worrying about the nitty-gritty of how someone pronounces something.

And when you do want to add a touch of an accent, do so sparingly and with purpose.

You want your story to feel authentic, not like a caricature.

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