Accents & Dialects: How to Write Characters of Color Without Using Stereotypes Part 2
Updated: Feb 6, 2020
Authentic character voice can really propel your story from good to great but things can get complicated if your character has an accent or would speak in dialect, especially if you're writing something outside of what you're familiar with. You want your character's voice to be realistic but you don't want to offend anyone by getting it wrong either. So how do you write accents and dialect that won't make your readers cringe?
Be honest, does your character really have to talk like that or are you relying on a stereotype?
This is key. Stereotypes have dictated what certain types of people are supposed to sound like but you don't have to perpetuate the stereotype. Their accent or dialect should be determined by their entire identity, not just one facet of it like geography, ethnicity, or education. For tips on how to write an authentic character read my previous post on the topic.
These are the things you should consider when you're developing a racial or ethnic minorities' voice:
Where do they live and how long have they lived there?
Do they speak English and at what proficiency?
How do the people they grew up with sound?
What do they want to sound like?
That last one may seem odd but let me tell you a story of someone I knew in high school:
Her name was Caroline and I met her in the ninth grade, we weren't friends and we never had a class together but we had mutual friends so sometimes we'd hang out. I found out soon after meeting her she immigrated from Latin America to Virginia when she was younger and she talked pretty much like we all did. She was fluent in English and didn't have an accent. Flash forward to the 11th grade and I noticed she had an accent that wasn't there just two years prior and it was very noticeable. I was so caught off guard I asked about it and she told me that the way she was talking was actually how she sounded and previously she was pretending in order to fit in. She also began to demand that people call her by her real name, Carolina, instead of Caroline, the name she gave herself to seem more "American." She made a choice when she was younger and she made a different choice when she got older.
Baring a speech impediment or disability, people have an option to change the way they talk. Speech patterns can and do change over time so ask yourself, what would your character want to sound like?
Next, if you've decided it makes sense for your character to have an accent, pay attention to real people who have that accent, read books with characters from that place, especially when written by #ownvoices authors. These are great frames of reference to model your character's voice. Be subtle, you don't have to comment on the way that character sounds every time they talk and you don't have to be heavy-handed with the descriptions of their accent, you may confuse your reader if you try to over explain.
Writing dialects and accents isn't easy, here are some resources that can help:
Finally, hire a sensitivity reader. A well rounded sensitivity reader will be able to tell you if the dialect sounds realistic and give you suggestions on how to correct any errors.
If you are unsure if they are a good fit to edit the character's dialect, ask them if they have any knowledge or expertise in that area.