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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Writing Dialog With a Foreign Accent

Our literature, much like our society, is becoming more and more multicultural. A story in which all characters come from the same background might not sound credible in a world where people increasingly communicate across racial and national divides: today, most neighborhoods, workplaces, and families are a kaleidoscope of diverse accents and cultures.

But portraying linguistic differences in writing can be tricky. How can you write dialog for a character with an accent with grace and respect, without coming across as offensive?


First and foremost, you must ask yourself: how does the character's accent serve your story?

Make sure you have a good answer before you proceed. Does the maid's Spanish accent underline the racial and economic divides in our society, or does it simply strengthen the stereotype that all maids are Hispanic? What can you achieve by giving a waiter - or a high-powered attorney - a Pakistani accent? Do you expect your readers to react to a Russian accent in a certain way, and what do you plan to do with that reaction?

You must always remember that an accent is a tool, not a comment on the character's personality. When you use an accent to imply intellectual abilities, or to draw humor from the imperfect English, you run the risk of offending your readers. But used carefully and with a lot of forethought, an accent can add depth and flavor to your writing.