Accent. Dialect. Patois.
How much is too much?
My wife’s grandmother was from Kennett, Missouri. Though soft-spoken, her words were sharp, focused, and colored by a distinct accent. It was that peculiar mixture of Midwestern and Southern that her family called “Okie,” and though hers had faded with age, it was still audible when she chose to speak.
Receiving a letter from Grandma Ilene, though…that was a special joy in our house. In her letters, she spoke as if young again, her accent strong and pronounced. She only had a 4th grade education, and she spelled everything phonetically. When we read her words, we could hear her unique voice.
“I taken down to Seeyurs and boughten me a par a paints.”
It was authentic. It was true.
…And I would never have my characters speak like that.
Why? Because it would be too much. It was not too much for a letter from Grandma Ilene–no, it was absolutely perfect for that–but it would be too much for a character in a novel. Even for a small, cameo role it’s too much. In the above example, the use of “taken” and “boughten” would be enough to convey the accent; the inclusion of “Seeyurs” for Sears, and “par a paints” for “pair of pants” is too much. As a letter from the woman we knew, informed by the context of her personality and her Dust Bowl history, it was a thing of folk beauty, but tossed it into a novel, put it in the mouth of a secondary character, and it steps over the line and becomes caricature or, worse, ridicule.
Plus, it will annoy the reader.
While I want to build characters that are full of realism and detail, I don’t want to slow the reader down or have my prose get in the way. Too much dialect will distract more than it will embellish.
Two examples from the printed page:
In recent research, I came across a “dramatization” of a scene in early Seattle history. The author puts this sentence into the mouth of one of Seattle’s founding fathers.
“‘Pears t’me we’ve settled in the wrong spot, boys.”
This sentence forced a double-take. It initial apostrophe gets lost in the double quote mark, and so I read “pears” instead of a contracted version of “appears.” The book was (unfortunately) full of such ersatz cowboy/pioneer dialect, and it came across as hokey, corny, forced, and inauthentic.
Then there’s what I consider the worst example of dialect in a novel: the character of Joseph, the vinegar-faced serving man from Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. I’ve read a lot about how Joseph’s speech, tough as day-old Yorkshire pudding, was ground-breaking for its day. Maybe so, but about two-thirds of anything Joseph says is completely incomprehensible.
“‘Is there nobody inside to open the door?” I hallooed, responsively.
“There’s nobbut t’ missis; and shoo’ll not oppen ’t an ye mak’ yer flaysome dins till neeght.”
Um…hunh? Oh, I can parse it out…with effort. “There’s no one about but the missus, and she’ll not open it even if you make your fearsome noises until nightfall.” But really, do I want my readers to stop and head-scratch their way through every line spoken by my serving man?
How, then, to apply a dialect or accent to a character without going over the top?
One technique that I have used to good effect is to let the accent or dialect run a little heavy when I first introduce a character, and then to back it off. I did this with Vincent D’Avignon, the scoundrel from my Fallen Cloud Saga. Vincent is Québécois, and when we first meet him, his English speech is peppered with French and patois. Quickly, though, the “sound” of Vincent’s voice is established in the reader’s mind, and all I have to do is throw in an occasional mais oui or similar phrase to reinforce it.
Another technique is to merely modify syntax. A lot of dialects and accents have distinctive rhythms and word use. As in the example from Grandma Ilene, above, the sentence “I taken down to Sears and boughten me a pair of pants” can be read easily while still invoking the music of the Okie accent.
Accents are so often caricatured in American culture–take the French accents of Pepe Le Pew or Inspector Clouseau, for example–that one must tread lightly so as not to unwittingly ring any bells in a reader’s memory. However, they are also quite familiar, and this can be used to our advantage. Sometimes all that is needed is a descriptive phrase to introduce it to the readers ear.
So tread lightly.
When it comes to accents, dialects, and patois, less is definitely more.