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When writing in first person, if the POV character talks with a certain dialect or type of diction (eg. "I ain't got all day! Hurry it up, will ya?") should they narrate with the same accent, or can they narrate in a normal voice without the accent?

I have a POV character who talks in such a rough, uneducated manner, but I cringe at the thought of writing whole chapters that way. Does anyone have any suggestions how to approach it?

Thanks!

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3 Answers 3

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People don't hear themselves as speaking with an accent. "Accent" is always an outside judgment--one person's experience of another person's speech. So if you try to write first person with an accent, you create POV confusion right away. Grammatically it's first person, but it sounds like a third person account.

I recommend not trying to spell words the way the character sounds (and especially not the way they sound to someone else). That always slows the reader down, and greatly increases the chance of popping readers out of their fictional trance.

Instead, write what the character would write (if they could write). Illustrate the character's education, class, roughness, and attitude not by spelling words the way they sound to others, but by the character's choice of words and grammar. There's no need to misspell words even if the character would. (You can get away with that once or twice, but a little goes a very long way.)

Now, when the narrator narrates other characters' dialogue, you have a little bit of license to write what the narrator hears. You can use a tiny bit of quirky spelling, but again, a little goes a long way. And note that the narrator will hear accents and dialects only when people speak differently than the narrator.

I recently read a story in which the first person narrator said "would of." That simple grammatical flaw (used once or twice in a 10,000 word story) gave me plenty of clues about the character's background.

A final note: It seems to me that your example doesn't show accent so much as dialect or diction. Those are similarly invisible to the person who speaks them.

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Ah, that was what I meant - dialect and diction. I'll edit my post accordingly. :) –  Lexi Sep 1 '11 at 6:47
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+1 for "write what the character would write". Part of this is also about understanding why the character is writing this story and whom they are writing it for. That will help reveal how they choose to present themselves. –  Joel Shea Sep 1 '11 at 8:32
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It's also worth noting that writing a whole book in accent would likely be tedious to read through at best. Also good to remember that avoiding the accent doesn't exclude the use of colloquialisms (e.g. "dunno", "innit", "wanna"), since these are words in their own right, and convey a lot about a character. –  Craig Sefton Sep 1 '11 at 10:59
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@Joel The character isn't writing the story (unless it's a journal or letter type book). The author is writing the story. The character is narrating it. Think more listening to an audiobook. –  Ralph Gallagher Sep 2 '11 at 1:55
    
@Ralph - I understand that the fictional character is not putting pen to paper (again, because they don't really exist). But whatever term you want to use (writing, telling, narrating, etc), it's the characters voice and POV that must come through. The writer knows much more about the world then they character does (arguably, they know an infinite amount more). But the character is still the one that they reader is supposed to connect with and therefore the author needs to understand why the character is writing (I mean telling) this story and whom they are writing it for. –  Joel Shea Sep 2 '11 at 11:45

Elmore Leonard's seventh rule of writing:

Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won't be able to stop.

If your book were intended to be spoken by an actor then it would not include non-standard grammar or contractions. It is understood in theatre and film that the written script is a blueprint and it is up to the actor and a dialogue coach (if necessary) to inflect and add a specific accent.

Having said that voice has a flavour even without the use of non-standard punctuation. If you ask a UK Politician how his journey to work was he might reply:

"The blasted underground was closed between Pimlico and King's Cross, had to use the bally bus service. Most monstrous inconvenience you can imagine."

If you asked a cleaner in the House of Commons a less-educated chap from the East End he might reply.

"Got stuck on the tube, didn't I? I tell you what, these jokers might run the country but they can't manage to run the bloody trains, know what I mean?"

Just the response they give and the way they use language communicates the differences in attitude plainly without recourse to extra apostrophes and patois.

EDIT: Disclaimer: I don't necessarily agree with Leonard and don't think this advice is universal. But in 99 cases out of 100 it will be. If you have some special reason for breaking this rule then do so. But you probably don't so...

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Ah, I see. So it's something like using the language they'd use, but if they drop the ends off words when speaking (eg. comin', waitin') or miss letter sounds (eg. didn't -> din't) you'd probably leave it out? –  Lexi Sep 1 '11 at 23:26
    
Your "didn't/di'n't" example does point to an exception to the general rule. Where a word or phrase has no other usage except in a particular patois it can be safely rendered as a part of the written story. The phrase "Oh no you di'n't!" really has no validity written "Oh no you didn't!". People use the latter without the same connotation as the former. It is permissible to render "didn't" as "di'n't" to distinguish between the phrase being used as an expression of surprise and despair vs. slang usage as a shorthand for "how dare you show me disrespect, backpedal rapidly or I will hit you". –  One Monkey Sep 2 '11 at 8:37
    
the examples aren't exactly for first person narrative directly. but any rule has exceptions. –  Laith Sep 9 '11 at 15:15

If your POV character speaks with an accent and he is the one narrating the story, then you should be consistent with the voice, accent and all. The only exception would be if the character states very specifically that the accent is a fake and is done only for the benefit of those with whom he interacts. If this is going to be a problem, then you may want to change your story to use a different narrator.

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I tend to agree with this one over Dale's answer. The only way to drive home the fact that the character has an accent/speaks a dialect is to make his voice consistent throughout. –  M.A Sep 1 '11 at 7:23
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Accents don't affect spelling. Dialect does, so that's up for debate, but spelling out an accent in first person doesn't make sense. I'm Canadian, but when I write 'about', I don't spell it 'aboot'. (I also don't pronounce it that way, but you get what I mean). We don't hear our own accents, so why would we try to write phonetically? –  Kate Sherwood Sep 1 '11 at 11:18
    
That's right actually. Accents don't need to be spelled out, but I would still say the colloquialisms (probably what the questioner means by 'dialects') have to be consistent in order to provide a fuller identification of the character. –  M.A Sep 1 '11 at 12:20

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