It's Hard to Write Accents that Sound Like Real People
One of the joys of reading is using your imagination to enhance the scene on the page. Some characters have very distinct voices; the writer gave them an accent or speech pattern that’s different than the others. Distinct voices can create their own poetry. However, if the writer has left any wiggle room for what the character might sound like—if the character sounds generic—the reader can expand in whatever direction they choose.
As a writer, if you want your reader to hear a specific, distinct accent or speech pattern in their head for a particular character, you may want to take the additional time and craft to put that voice into the character. You will want to make it obvious, so your reader is enraptured with the sounds of your characters’ voices.
Writing Tip: Listen to Local Radio, TV Ads, & News
Now, you can always start with the easy method of writing an accent: using specific dialogue tags, adverbs, and adjectives to describe the character’s speech.
“Howdy, ma’am,” he drawled with a thick Texas twang.
Let’s say you even have it written that way in your first draft. No worries. Maybe you’re not sure in the early days exactly what the character sounds like or how to write their voice. But, when you conduct your first round of creative editing and revision, you may want to replace those lines of dialogue with a voice that’s more authentic to the ear.
If you want to make your reader really hear that drawl, you’ll need to practice listening to a Texas drawl, then transcribing it phonetically.
So, go to Texas, sit somewhere in public, and practice quietly typing up the exact sounds of the people you hear talking around you.
Okay, you don’t have to go to Texas to hear Texas.
In today’s age: everything is a quick search away.
You want to hear what Texans sound like?
- Look up a Texas radio station and live stream it for an hour.
- Put on a country singer from Texas and go to town for an album or two.
- Dig through YouTube (or iSpot.tv—see below) for TV ads from small local businesses in different cities in Texas, and settle in to take notes.
Practice spelling out the words fo-nay-tic-alee until you can hear the voice in your head and write it out consistently. The emphasis, the missing letters, the places where people pause—all are important when writing an accent.
Listening to local radio (or watching local news or commercials) is a good way to pick up on localized slang as well, or quirks of word usage in a particular group. This can be especially helpful when you’re trying to capture the sound of a group of which you’re not a member.
But do not only passively listen: you must train your fingers to write accents, as well as your ears. You must make sure that the sounds your ears hear are the words your fingers type or write.
As you listen, attempt to mimic. Pause and ask yourself the best way to authentically spell out what the person said in the exact same sounds they made when they said it.
It could end up being any number of trials before you find the spelling or language tricks that truly reflect your character(s) and allow you to write their accent, but when you get it right, you’ll know readers will hear the same voice in their head that you did in yours.