I could have titled this blog “A Case Study in Hubris by a Hack Writer”, but I will stick to my convictions, even though it means taking on a literary great. Here goes.
I recently inherited a full set of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels by Dorothy L Sayers, and I’ve enjoyed working my way through them. Until the most recent, which I kept wanting to throw across the room out of irritation.
The culprit is Five Red Herrings, first published in 1931. The BBC dramatised this one when I was 10, with Ian Carmichael in the title role, and that was my introduction both to the existence of Lord Peter and the expression “red herring”. Years later I watched and enjoyed Carmichael’s performance on DVD, so I already knew the story, but I was looking forward to seeing how the original book compares.
And I’m sorry to say, the BBC version was much better. Because the first third of the book – essentially, the set-up on which all else depends – is nigh-on impenetrable, due to Sayers’ inability to trust the reader. Or possibly trust herself, which is almost worse.
The set-up is easy enough to grasp. There is a murder while Lord Peter is on holiday in Scotland, and he identifies six possible suspects. Five of them are… well, the clue’s in the title. The sixth dunit. But.
Most of the suspects and all of the policemen Peter deals with are Scottish, and Sayers couldn’t resist making sure we know it by spelling out their accents phonetically. Pages and pages looking like her typewriter exploded and scattered red hot apostrophes and extra vowels across the room. Opening the book at random: “There’s mony a slip, an’ I’m no losin’ sight o’ any o’ my suspectit pairsons, juist yet awhile.” And there’s plenty more where that comes from.
Don’t do this.
I can see why you might want to. Obviously, you want your characters to be distinct, and you want to give your readers a sense of place and location. The problem is, unless you do it very well indeed and know exactly what you’re doing – in other words, unless you are for example Irvine Walsh or Roddy Doyle, who know the accents of their native lands like, well, natives and can reproduce them accordingly – then by giving your characters an accent, you are not making them distinct. You are making them generic, from the point of view of someone whom you clearly think has the right accent. You’ll notice that Lord Peter never talks with a distinctly English accent (“Hair-lair, euld chep …”). His accent is apparently the default, proper one, so does not need spelling out.
Putting in a cod accent shows that either you don’t actually trust your readers to pick up on what you’re trying to say through the sheer power of your prose, or you don’t trust yourself to be writing very well, and neither is a good idea.
It’s patronising – to the reader, to the characters, and to anyone in real life of the same ethnicity – and it’s a pain. It throws the readers out of the story. You want their eyes to glide effortlessly across the page. Instead, when you come to some accent your eye skids to a screeching halt as you try to unpick whatever the other person is saying. Then you shift mentally back up a gear as someone speaks the Queen’s English again, and then the brakes come on once more as the accent replies. And so on, for page after page.
So, assuming you think the accent is important at all, how do you impart the distinctiveness of someone’s voice?
Easy. Just trust the reader. Plant a few descriptive seeds and stand back as their imaginations do the work. How descriptive? Well, the occasional colloquialism or expression that you wouldn’t hear coming from anyone else will do the job. Agatha Christie throws in a few Frenchisms for Poirot, and gives him a very distinct way of speaking, but never tries to describe his accent. But I bet you can hear it, and not just because of David Suchet. If you heard a BBC reporter reporting on a non-English newsworthy figure, you’d be shocked if they tried to imitate their accent as well. We just need the words. Our brains can do the rest.
If you like, you can give us the impression their voice makes on the point of view character. “She had difficulty with her ‘th’s’”; “His lilting accent was at odds with his grave expression”; “‘Sure,’ she said, somehow milking three or four syllables out of the one word.” The reader’s imagination is then cued to supply how it might have sounded.
Or just rely on the setting and the background. Sayers didn’t actually need to give her characters Scottish accents, because the whole novel is set in Scotland anyway, and its Scottishness shines out through every line. Her love for the country and its beauty and its people could not be clearer, just through the power of her writing. We would hear the accents however she wrote it.
But no! You might protest. All of these solutions depend on the reader doing some work. They might get it wrong! They might read it differently to how I intend it!
Well, good, because that shows you’re doing it properly. If you want to see a story exactly as its creator intended, go to the movies. If your book gets a thousand readers, congratulate yourself on creating a thousand different worlds – and isn’t that so much better?
And if you’re still stuck then, there’s an obvious solution: ask one of us. We don’t just ghostwrite, you know.