Do Your Characters Speak Your Language?

Your Characters Speak Your Language


Mary Deal

One of the most difficult accomplishments in writing is to get a certain character’s dialect and accent correct.

When you include foreign characters in your story, it’s imperative that your reader know they have an accent relative to the country from which they hail.

If you are not attentive to these nuances, all your characters will sound like you. If you as the author are not a linguist or grammarian, you may have a certain limited capability at using the English language. Without expanding your knowledge or simply using a Thesaurus, you will find yourself repeating the same words and phrases over and over.

Let’s take the example of a foreign accent. Your character’s manner of speech will be greatly affected by the way you describe that person and from where they came. Say you’ve set up your character as being from France. Maybe he dresses in fine French clothes, is real dapper and has European table manners. Beyond that, have him use French phrases like mon cherie in the course of his dialogue.

Any foreign phrases you attach to your character should be fairly well known to the general public. These phrases both immediately give the reader the character’s flavor of speech; it also lets the reader skim smoothly over the foreign phrase, imagine an accent, and stay in the story. Including a phrase that not too many people have heard makes the reader pause to try to understand. That is something you do not want to happen.

When writing in English, the author must still assure that all characters have their own manner of speaking. Maybe a cowboy has a laid-back southern drawl, as in “I ain’t into office work,  ma’am. I ride horses.” Can you hear him speak?  The African man who made it to the Olympics has an Nigerian accent and sings songs from his country that no one understands. The Latino from south of the border speaks broken English interspersed with his home areas colloquialisms and calls women Senora or Senorita.

These are but a few examples of unique characters who must sound different. Each would be enhanced by the way the author introduces them into the story. The cowboy always wears boots, even with a tuxedo. The African man plays his drums because he misses home, but doesn’t want to miss a chance at the Olympics either. The Latino does his own cooking because you can’t get real authentic south-of-the-border cooking at any restaurant.

When you develop your characters well, many times even their simplest conversations will appear to the reader as being spoken with some sort of accent or brogue.

But don’t overlook that once you set up the special characters that people your story, their dialogue must follow suit. You must set your characters apart, not only in mannerisms and such, but in their dialogues. Otherwise all your characters will all sound like you, the author, and will speak the same language as you.

Please visit Mary Deal’s website for more wonderful articles like this one: Write Any Genre.

About Mike Angley

Mike Angley is the award-winning author of the Child Finder Trilogy. He retired as a Colonel from the Air Force in 2007 following a 25-year career as a Special Agent with the Office of Special Investigations (OSI). He held 13 different assignments throughout the world, among which were five tours as a Commander of various units, to include two Air Force Squadrons and a Wing. He is a seasoned criminal investigator and a counterintelligence and counterterrorism specialist. In his last assignment, he was Commander of OSI Region 8 with responsibility for all of Air Force Space Command. He’s fond of saying, “If it entered or exited Earth’s atmosphere, I had a dog in the fight!”
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