Accents are a distinct pronunciation of dialogue and a detail many less experienced writers quickly embrace. Usually with far too heavy a hand.
Accents in comics are a slippery slope and generally, best avoided.
When not executed perfectly, accents are often clunky, distracting, confusing and in today’s culture, can quickly come across offensive and put the writer in an ignorant light. Like this:
“Non, we can’t ask ‘im fair zat. We should go to la pulice. Non, non! La FBI. Zey weehl ‘elp us catch la veehlain!”
You might not have even been able to catch every word of that bad french (kind of my point).
“No, we can’t ask him for that. We should go to the police. No, no! The FBI. They will help us catch the villain!”
If you choose to capture accents phonetically, I urge you to do it sparingly, but consistently. Which means the words you choose to capture with accent should not be more common words, the character will be repeating in every line.
“No, we can’t ask ‘im for that. We should go to the police. No, no! The FBI. They will ‘elp us catch the villain!”
So rather than focus on capturing accents phonetically, what can you do? Rely on the follow:
DICTION: Your overall word choice.
Don’t use generic universal words. Instead select words that reflect the character’s personality and background.
“Absolutely absurd, we can not make such a request of him. We must find a police agent. No, no! The FBI. They will help us catch the villain!”
SYNTAX: The arrangement of words.
When you study foreign languages and the way people speak, you’ll notice some applications are quite different than English. And even with English, repositioning words can create much different effects.
“Please explain this to me.” Sounds generic right, you can pretty much imagine anyone saying this. But swap it around a bit:
“Pardon, explain me this please.” The shift in syntax and a simple diction addition, and suddenly the statement takes on a completely different feel.
DIALECT: Word choices specific to a region or group.
Perhaps our French character is from a particular area in France that uses a specific term for police agents, like “flic”.
“No, we can’t ask him for that. We need a flic. No, no! The FBI. They will help us catch the villain!”
Of course most Americans reading this probably aren’t too familiar with the term flic, but when your audience recognizes your dialect word choices, they can instantly reveal information about the speaker and be quite potent.
Star Trek fans might recognize this quote which reeks (in a good way) of 1920’s Chicago gangsters:
“You Feds must have made a lot of improvements since that other ship came here. You probably got all kinds of fancy heaters up there. So here’s the deal: You give me all the heaters I need, enough tools so I can knock off all those punks all at once. Then I’ll take over, and all you have to do is deal with me.”
APHORISMS AND IDIOMS: Aphorisms are short expressions of generally accepted truths. Idioms are sayings whose meaning is different than the literal meaning of the words. If you’ve been following my site for a while, you know good dialogue (accented or not) is all about subtext. And aphorisms and idioms usually deliver on subtext in a big way.
Aphorisms and idioms are often unique to geographical regions or used by distinct groups of people. Where they’re more universally understood, their origin tongue is usually recognized. For these reasons, they’re goldmines in establishing a characters background, upbringing or history.
When relying on aphorisms and idioms of real-world foreign languages, you can sometimes get away with using the foreign language itself. For example;
“C’est la vie.” (Such is life.)
“Carpe Diem.” (Seize the day.)
Our french character in our examples here might use the idiom “strike of lightning” (Coup de foudre in french). Of course, referencing “strike of lightning” might not paint our character as french for most U.S. readers, because it’s a fairly uncommon term. “Raining like a pissing cow” (yeah it’s a real french saying), might work a bit better because it’s closer to the widely known idiom, “raining like cats and dogs”. Of course context plays a large role in establishing the meaning of dialogue. “I felt the strike of lightning when we first met. It was the first and last time I’ve ever felt that way.” You now might realize, “strike of lightning” is a french way of saying “love at first sight.”
When you make use of aphorisms, sayings or idioms to reflect a character’s origin or background, make sure your selection is recognizable enough to reinforce the characteristic you’re trying to get across. Sometimes easier said than done, but hey, that’s what makes writing dialogue so much fun.
TAGLINES, SLOGANS and TRADEMARK SAYINGS: One of my personal favorites, taglines, slogans and trademarks sayings are any specific use of diction, dialect, syntax (or really, any other element of speech) repeated often enough that it becomes expected and anticipated from the character. They can be as short as a single word, or a complete sentence, though usually in comics they are most effective when kept short.
There are a million examples of this in comics past and present. Here are three of my favorites;
“Hulk smash.” Diction/syntax.
“Petite.” Diction/dialect. (I remember Gambit using this word in the X-men cartoon all the time.)
On a final thought, keep in mind, accents and speech idiosyncrasies are what other people hear. When you deliver phonetic accents for one character, and not ALL the characters in your book, you’re drawing attention to an aspect about them that lends itself to individual interpretation—and it may not always be interpreted how you expect.
Though by no means a complete list, instead of falling back on phonetic spelling for your accents, stick to working in the elements listed here. I can’t guarantee your readers will love your dialogue, but I promise they won’t put your book down thanks to your Cockney boffin hero.▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.