On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 15: Dialects and Accents

In my writing adventures, I often play around with accents (pronunciation differences) and dialects (changes in word choice or cadence). Most of my stories have one or more characters with some kind of weird speech quirk. I’ve even written a couple with accented narration. The tricky bit is getting that to appear on paper to match what I hear in my head.

While reading the 10 Hugos and Nebulas for a challenge, I was surprised to find that very few of them had dialects or accents. Does that mean that we should not write with accents?

No, but you do need to be careful with them. This is one of those cases where a little is good but a lot won’t be better.

When I’m writing a rough draft, I’ll write the accented character exactly as I hear him in my head. This usually results in an accent or dialect that is far too dense, and I have to tone it back. I often use feedback from beta readers to help me determine if my accent is a little too stiff. Reading it aloud can help in some cases, too, particularly if you’re totally making up the accent instead of copying a common one.

Here’s an example from Remnant in the Stars. This is an early version of that scene, after I had already toned down the accent once. Sora is speaking to Derek about an event that happened years ago. The rules I decided on for his accent were these: no pronouns, no To Be verbs, no contractions, and no past or future tenses.

“Derek needs to understand that Sora’s condition resembles nothing like normal. Sora’s parents served on a scout ship run by the Hadesha Household. Sora ages fifty years by the time the scout ship finds Earth. Normally, little ones remain with the fleet, but Sora’s telepathy develops at the time of the event. Sora’s parents bring Sora on the scout when the fleet reads Earth on the scanners. League mechs shoot down the scout. The League and Coalition fight over the wreckage. When the Coalition’s rescue team arrives, only two on the scout survive. One survivor sits in the room with Derek. The other dies soon after the rescue. Sora’s telepathy develops very far before the fleet catches up. When Sora’s aunt and uncle and Sora’s grandfather try to teach Sora control, Sora learns too little. Too much time goes by.”

What rule did I kick out from the first effort? No complex or compound sentences. Can you imagine someone’s dialogue being all noun-verb-object? Wow. This version’s better than the original version, but not by a whole lot. Reading it, especially out loud, was tough to do without tripping.   Here’s the published version. The final rules I decided upon were no contractions and no past or future tense verbs.

He checked that line of thought before it could devolve into harsher self-deprecation. “Derek, you need to understand that I am unusual even for my kind. My parents are part of a scout ship run by the Hadesha Household. I am a boy of fifty years when our ship finds Earth.”

“Now hold on. That’s two hundred years ago.”

He grimaced. Why did humans always round their numbers? Had they no sense of precision? “Two hundred fourteen. I am two hundred sixty-four now. Normally, little ones remain with the fleet, but my telepathy develops at this time, and parents must be near at hand to give the early instruction. Other relations, even close ones, cannot reach into those deep parts of the mind to give the correct guidance.”

Derek’s posture relaxed some, and the sense of loathing abated. “I know the first contact story. The Aolanian scout was intercepted by the League and shot down. The League and Coalition fought over the wreckage. When the Coalition’s rescue team arrived, there were two survivors, and one died later. The other was a kid. You?”

Even two hundred fourteen years, five months and twelve days later, Sora recalled waking up in an unfamiliar place with a human female watching over him. What had panicked him more? All the tubes and wires or the hard cast wrapped around his arm?

“Yes, yes. I am that child. My telepathy develops very far before the fleet catches up. When my aunt and uncle and my grandfather try to teach me control, I do not learn as much as I should. It is too late for me.”

Better, yes?

When you write an accent or dialect for a character, you need enough of it in there to provide the flavor of it, but like seasoning your dinner, you don’t want to dump in the whole jar of spices. Most of the time — because there are always exceptions — I try to pick one or two quirks and stick with those. Too many and you get a mess. Not enough and what’s there looks like a mistake.  Just be careful what you pick. In Mindstorm: Parley at Ologo, one of the alien races trills on the letter r.  Just one quirk, right? Shouldn’t be too bad, right?  Welllll… check out the original version of this dialogue.

“Don’t be rrridiculous.” Brachi rose to his full height and stalked closer to Patina. “Why would Patina rrrequest forrr you to arrrange such inapprrroprrriate quarrrterrrs when she had alrrready told us to make a place of honorrr for ourrr guests.”

I had a critique partner tell me she hated it when that guy talked because she had to slow way down to make sure she was reading it right.  That’s bad. So, I toned it back some and arrived at this version:

“Don’t be rridiculous.” Brachi rose to his full height and stalked closer to Patina. “Why would Patina ask you to set aside such inappropriate quarters when she had already told us to make a place of honor for our guests.”

*Phew* More readable now, but just enough weirdness to provide the general idea, especially as you read on and discover that he only trills the r when it’s in front of the word..

Another thing to keep an eye on is making sure the accent is consistent for a character all the way through. In Lines of Succession, I use an accent to differentiate between the nobility and peasantry in the story. Here, check this out from the published version. Baldwin, a guard who’s part of Princess Elaina’s escort, is helping her figure out a cryptic letter she received from a prophet:

When he finished [reading the letter], he started again. “This path none would go alone. If ‘e’s meanin’ a real one, the only one I c’n think of is Kalinda Rift. It’s north o’ here, and there’s a path right through themountains. And see, there’s this weird  rock at the Sonjikstani side. They call it The Needle. It’s tall and straight, and it ‘as this ‘ole at the top.”

She looked way up at him. “You actually pass through that hole?”

“Nay, Yer ‘Ighness. Far too small for a real griffin.”

“I see. Most of the rest is pretty easy.” Elaina pointed to the next few lines. “Whatever the path is, someone joins me. I fight Toshiroans and win at some expense. Then I’m Zane’s regent for some bizarre reason.”

“Could be all manner of reasons for that.”

She turned toward the north. “If we took the Rift, we’d be home by nightfall tomorrow.”

Baldwin shook his head. “Not with the slow old ‘ens we’re flying. ‘Cept my young’un, we must’ve gotten the oldest, slowest ‘ens in the ‘ole aerie. The sergeant says we been making poor time every step of the way.”

On an earlier draft, I found that his accent shifted around some as he appeared in later scenes. That happened when, after the initial accent was way too dense, I had to back up and ease up some. Here’s a second draft with the same guy in a later scene.

“What seems to be the trouble?” He beckoned Baldwin closer, and they met halfway. “Not hurt, are we?”

Baldwin shook his head. “No, Yo’ Grace. Jus’ a rough turn o’ events is all.”

Uncle Grady scowled. “Speak plainly, man.”

“Fo’give me, Yo’ Grace.” Baldwin cast a glance at Oswald. “Master Aquilane, he–”

Michael twisted around and stared hard at Oswald. “Me and Baldwin made a fort, and Oswald rode his horse right through it!”

Uncle Grady’s scowl grew. “You weren’t in it, were you?”

“No, Yo’ Grace. When I saw wha’ Master Aquilane’s meant t’ be doin’, ‘Is ‘Ighness and I hid b’hind a tree.”

Notice how it doesn’t quite match?  To deal with this, I went through the manuscript and every time Baldwin opened his mouth and spewed forth words, I copied them into another document so I had all his dialogue in one place without extraneous verbiage to distract me. After deciding what quirks I wanted in his speech, I went through the entire pile of his lines and made them all match that standard. Now he sounds consistent throughout.

Dialects and accents are fun to play with in writing, but remember one key thing to their usage: Clarity must triumph over authenticity.  No matter how cool or realistic the accent is, anything that ejects your reader from the story or makes them slow down to figure out what in the universe you’re trying to do … is bad. You want the reader to sit down with the intention of reading a chapter or two and look up to find a few hours have gone by because they were so engrossed in what you wrote. That won’t happen if you make it hard for them.

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