‘Gor blimey gov it’s a fair cop and no mistake’ – How do we deal with dialect/accents in written fiction?

How do we deal with accents / dialects in modern writing?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI recently read ‘The Mote in Gods Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle written in the 1970’s.  In it some of the characters were from colonies with, how shall I put it, a pronounced Scottish bias.  As much as I enjoyed the book I found the ‘di ye nae ken’ written accent annoying.  I know they’re from New Caladonia or where ever, but seeing the accent written didn’t work for me.  In my head they all sounded like Scotty from Star Trek (‘she canna tek it cap’n’).  I’ve tried to think of other examples of dialect in writing and I’m struggling.  Is this something we just don’t do now?  I know Terry Pratchett uses a Scottish accent for his ‘Wee Free Men’ and his vampires tend to talk wiz zee expected Transylvanian type accent as well.  This works as a comic affect.  Perhaps we don’t try and use accents in non-comedic fiction, because if you’re not careful you could end up with a parody of an accent (we’ve seen it in films – I’m sure we can all think of one or two less than convincing accents).  Or do we now perceive it as potentially being offensive?

In general I think as readers we supply our own voices and if necessary accents to characters, we don’t need it written out in detail.  Ken McLeod’s recent book ‘The Night Sessions’ is set in Edinburgh, but he doesn’t try to use an accent to show his characters are Scottish.  Although, I guess if he did most would have one which might get a bit much.  Also what does he then do an American, or any other nationality character?

In the ‘Captain Smith’ books by Toby Frost some of the characters are ‘terribly British’, but this is at most implied by the use of a few words and phrases.  From then on we supply the accent in our heads.  I do the same in my soon to be released book ‘Project Noah’.  One of the characters uses the phrase ‘old boy’ occasionally, implying a vague ‘cultured’ accent.  Thereafter you’re free to form your own picture

I quoted Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing in my last blog and his rule 7 is ‘Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.’  To add my own slant to this I would say ‘if in doubt leave it out’ or by just using the odd word you can imply a great deal.

I would love to hear of examples where dialect has been used successfully or you think it has been over used?  Or as I mention above is it something we simply don’t do any more?

Ian Martyn

Author: Ian Martyn

Science Fiction Writer

If you have a view on this, let me know: