An interesting comment exchange with Australian author Angela Savage has got me thinking about dialects and accents. Before I go any further, let me encourage you to check out Savage’s books Behind the Night Bazaar and The Half Child. Both are believable and engaging mysteries in a deftly-drawn Thai setting and feature the likeable PI Jayne Keeney. Seriously, I recommend them.
Now, on to the whole question of dialect and accent. Here’s the challenge for the author when it comes to dialogue. On the one hand, we all know that people speak differently. Even people who speak the same language may very well speak different dialects of it depending on all sorts of factors (age group, education ethnic background, socioeconomic class and region being just a few of them). So if an author wants to create a believable character that character has to speak in a believable way. For instance, most Americans wouldn’t use the expression car park to describe a large area where people put their cars while they shop. It’s not an Americanism; Americans would be more likely to say parking lot. There are a lot of other examples of this kind of variation too. For instance, do you put your groceries in a shopping cart, a buggy, a wagon or a trolley? The main point here is that authors who want their characters to sound authentic need to be aware of the way people from a given background speak.
The same goes for syntactic patterns and other aspects of the way we speak. And if the author doesn’t match the characters’ voices to the setting and to the characters’ backgrounds, readers find the story less believable. It can be jarring.
On the other hand, putting too much emphasis on dialect can distract the reader, especially if it’s hard to understand what a character is saying. That’s even more the case if characters use a language that is foreign to the reader. What’s worse, using dialect without handling it carefully can have the effect of being condescending and can stereotype characters. Honestly it’s not easy to address this question of using accents and dialect in writing. I work on that one myself. But it can be done deftly.
For example, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is Belgian by birth and his first language is Belgian French. Once in a while he uses French expressions, but not to any great extent. And what’s more interesting is that Christie writes his dialogue without using stereotypical indicators of accent (e.g. zee for the). For example, in Cards on the Table, Poirot and three other sleuths (including Christie’s fictional detective novelist Ariadne Oliver) are invited to a dinner party hosted by the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana. Also invited are four people whom Mr. Shaitana hints have all gotten away with murder. When Shaitana is later stabbed by one of his guests, Poirot and the other sleuths look into the case. At one point, Poirot is talking to Superintendent Battle, who was also at the dinner:
‘‘Any ideas, Monsieur Poirot? As to motive? Anything of that kind?’…
‘Yes, I have something to say on that score. Tell me – Monsieur Shaitana, he did not give you any hint of what kind of party you were coming to tonight?’…
A bell whirred in the distance and a knocker was plied.
‘That’s our people,’ said Superintendent Battle. ‘I’ll go and let ‘em in. We’ll have your story presently. Must get on with the routine work.’’
If you look at this exchange you can see the difference in language background, class and occupation between the two men. But Christie doesn’t overdo it and she tells us about the characters through a little deft use of speech patterns such as syntactic structure.
Here’s an example of what you might call class differences in speech that comes from Martin Edwards’ All the Lonely People. In this story, Liverpool attorney Harry Devlin is shocked when his ex-wife Liz shows up at his home. He’s hopeful at first that this means she wants to put their relationship back together. But she tells him it’s because she’s run away from her lover Mick Coghlin and needs a place to stay for a short time. When Liz is murdered, Devlin becomes a suspect. In part to clear his name, he starts to investigate the murder. He finds that Liz had been mixed up with some seedy people, one of whom was Joe Rourke, with whom she’d recently taken up. Devlin wonders if Rourke might be involved in Liz’s murder so he interviews (among other people) Rourke’s former lover Jane Brogan. Here’s just a bit of their conversation:
‘‘When did you find out that Joe was seeing my wife?’
She considered. ‘Fortnight ago, three weeks maybe.’ With a harsh laugh she said, ‘Caught him good and proper, didn’t I?’
‘Found her photograph in the pocket of his jeans. I was only after a few bob to pay off the ‘leccy bill before they cut us off…’
‘What did you do, Jane?’
‘Took the money, didn’t I, what else?’’
You can tell just from this snippet that although Devlin isn’t from an upper-class background, he’s educated. Jane Brogan on the other hand is not. And what’s particularly interesting is that Edwards doesn’t paint her character in a stereotyped or condescending way. She’s doing the best she can in a very bad situation, but she is neither stupid nor an object of pity.
The point here is that integrating dialect in subtle ways can be a very effective way of showing not telling about characters and distinguishing them from each other. So long as it isn’t self-conscious or condescending, dialect can be an effective tool.
What about accents? Everyone knows that regional accents vary greatly and writing accents can be a challenge. But again, it wouldn’t be realistic if characters had no accent. In real life, they do. Some authors (Edwards is one of them) simply mention the accent without demonstrating it. Since the Harry Devlin series takes place mostly in Liverpool, many of the characters have what’s called a Scouse accent – the accent and dialect of Merseyside and the Liverpool area. But Edwards doesn’t go into detail writing that accent. Instead, he simply mentions it.
So does Peter Temple. In Bad Debts for instance, we meet sometimes-lawyer Jack Irish, who investigates the murder of a former client Danny McKillop. McKillop had been sent to prison on charges of drink driving that led to the death of local activist Anne Jeppeson. When McKillop is released he tries desperately to reach Irish but before Irish can meet with him, McKillop himself is murdered. One of the links in this case may be a charity organisation called the Safe Hands Foundation. Here’s just a bit of Irish’s encounter with the ‘doorman’ at Safe Hands:
‘Then he wanted my driver’s licence.
‘I’m not trying to cash a cheque here, sonny,’ I said. ‘Just phone the man.’
Tight little smile. ‘The body corporate lays down the security procedures.’ Flat Queensland voice. Pause. ‘Sir.’
‘This isn’t Pentridge,’ I said. ‘Didn’t they retrain you for this job? Just phone.’’
Here Irish makes clear just with a few words what the ‘doorman’s’ background is. Readers can also tell that this is a distinctly Australian conversation. It’s subtle and not condescending but it’s real.
Some crime novels involve code switching, or changing from one language to another. Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney for instance speaks Thai as well as her own Australian English. And in Helene Tursten’s The Glass Devil, the Swedish-speaking Violent Crimes Unit of the Göteborg police investigate a murder with a London connection. So a few of the Swedish-speaking characters code-switch to English. Tursten addresses that in a matter-of-fact way by simply mentioning the switch without writing different accents and in my opinion (so do feel free to disagree with me if you do), that’s an effective way to handle it.
The question of how to make one’s characters authentic through accent and dialect isn’t an easy one to answer. It seems though that subtle uses of grammar and expression rather than, say, a lot of spelling changes can do the job effectively. More important is the character him or herself. If characters are drawn well and have at least some depth to them, the author can use that depth to avoid stereotyping or condescension because of accent or dialect.
What’s your view on this? Do you get strong feelings about characters based on their accents or dialects? If you’re a writer, how do you handle this question?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Johnny Cash’s Southern Accents.