How to write accents in your screenplay!

Part of the Dialogue Doctor series!

(Disclosure; some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning I may earn a commission if you choose to purchase through them)

The Dialogue Doctor is back after a long hiatus, mainly due to quarantine depression (because seriously, this situation is depressing…). Got a question about writing dialogue? I’m here to help! It’s the one thing I know how to do!

So you have a great story idea, something really whacky and fun! Congrats. And the best part? there’s a zany character who speaks differently than ‘normal people!’ You’re excited to write out each word they mispronounce in detail in your screenplay! Sounds like it’s going to be a great source of both comedy and plot! 

Maybe not. Actually, one million percent not.

Okay, I’ll admit, the above example is probably a tad hyperbolic, but that doesn’t mean it’s without precedence (let’s harken back to the thankfully bygone days of comedy in the 80’s and 90’s, shall we?). The fact of the matter is that people with who speak with accented English have often been the butt of a joke, at the expense of everyone who speaks with that accent, usually to the benefit of white men in film studio boardrooms. It’s garbage, and as a script reader, editor and writer I won’t let it fly, and neither should you.

Ultimately, more than anything, accents are just a fact of life. They are not a source of conflict or plot in your life, why would they be that in your scripts? And of course sometimes accents do have a place in stories because they obviously can indicate key information about your character. The way a person speaks can inform the reader of their age, class, race or upbringing. We all know this through our own personal experiences in our lives; chances are you have met someone who has come from another place, or who is older or younger than you, or richer or poorer than you, who speaks in a way that sounds different from the way you speak.

Because that’s what happens when you live in a society.

In fact, having characters with accents that are well thought out and respectful is a good thing! It means you’re branching out from your immediate circle of vocal sounds; congratulations. Further still it can inform your story in more subtle ways, as well as let any reader know that you’ve thought this stuff out. You are thinking about how each of your individual characters sound and are respecting them within your script, and that translates into your writing and conveys that you give a damn. I like it when writers give a damn.

Now, when it comes to writing accents, ie; physically putting the words into a screenplay, less is more. (When it comes to writing in general, less is always more). This harkens back to our first dialogue doctor post about leaving the actors alone. Personally I think it’d be a real waste of time to mark every accented word in your dialogue, both for you and the reader. More importantly is that it comes off as racist/ageist/privileged, whether that’s your intention or not. And finally, it’s kind of lazy; which is ironic because it’s a lot of work to accent and mark each word you want to be pronounced differently than you pronounce it. But instead of coming across as writing in a character’s voice, it reads like you’ve got a stereotype-shaped crutch. It’s bad. 

In this post we’re going to cover two things; how to write a character with an accent (putting the words into the screenplay), and why you need to acknowledge and understand an accent in your work.

1) The first is pretty easy; you can simply introduce your character in the screenplay and write that they have an accent — for example; a Japanese character might speak with Japanese-accented English. Sometimes that happens in real life (shocking, I know). Another example; a stuffy, high ranking lord in the British aristocracy might have a more rhotic accent where they switch their r’s for soft w’s. 

For your screenplay indicate that they speak with an accent when you introduce them.

It really is that simple.

So, here we go; Atsuko, (20’s, punk-rock, speaks with a light Japanese accent), and her father, Hinata (60’s, traditional businessman looks, speaks with a slightly heavier Japanese accent), walk in the park and regard the ducks.

This example can ultimately suffice for character introductions. Obviously the goal is to write better, more quippy and succinct character introductions, but overall I’d let these fly. The information is conveyed. I, as a reader, get it.

That being said, do not assume that the reader will insert the accent in just because of a name or description of your character. Atsuko and Hinata could be fully Americanized and have straight-up California surfer-dude speech patterns; if anything because there is no indication they have an accent I won’t add one while reading.

Lest we forget, Jean-Luc Picard, with his exceptionally French name, does not speak with a French accent, and there’s no indication in the original creation of the character that he would.

If that’s enough for you, great. If it’s a minor character you can probably let it slide.

“I don’t have an accent!”
Sir Patrick Stewart, Picard, CBS Interactive

2) But what if it’s a main character? The second thing we’re going to cover is the why’s of an accent. Why does your character have that accent? Just because? That’s really not good enough, both for me as a reader of scripts, nor for you as a writer of them. I personally do not want to read poorly thought out ‘diverse token’ characters when with a little bit of elbow grease you can make them fully actualized people. It’s offensive and boring to read.

Your character speaks with an accent. You made that choice for a reason. Do the work to back up that choice.

So here’s some questions to ask about accents in your screenplay: Does that accent further the plot? More specifically, are there potential points of miscommunication between characters that further or deepen the plot? Are there points of conflict between characters because of the perception of an accent? Does your characterization support that accent throughout the script?

(Note bene; If your main point of conflict stems only from accents, you probably don’t have a strong enough conflict and may need to explore your story a little more. Conflicts need strong legs, and there is nothing strong about someone mispronouncing something throughout an entire movie, it’s a poorly executed punchline at best).

Why your character speaks in an accent may not be as important as what their motivations are, and the actions they take throughout the film, but it informs so much about them that it cannot be ignored. Again, people speak differently and we glean a lot of information from the way they sound. It seems simple, mainly because we take it for granted in our everyday lives, but the richness and context a writer can insert into their stories from it is anything but.

So where do we start? With research!

“But Betsy,” you say. “I don’t need to research my characters, I know who they are! I invented them!”

“Oh ho! But dear reader,” I reply. “There is nothing in your head that cannot be improved upon by copious amounts of reading on the subject!”

Ryan Phillipe in Gosford Park, IMDB

Let’s talk about ‘Gosford Park’ because that is a story where one of the minor plot lines is informed by accents. It is actually a fantastic source of minor conflict. Ryan Phillipe’s character notably speaks with a bad Irish accent. Throughout the movie the other characters, particularly the servants and staff, feel like there’s something wrong about him, but can’t put a finger on it. It’s revealed that he is faking it; he’s an American actor studying for a role. Holy cow, what a twist.

Julian Fellowes, the scriptwriter for Gosford Park, could not have included that kind of information/plot without some semblance of research. Furthermore, the indication that the accent is false might be a one-off mention in the script, and then expanded upon by Phillipe’s performance and the direction he was given (less is more, remember; trust the team). Gosford Park got Fellowes an Academy Award for best screenplay and he went on to create Downton Abbey. Fellowes clearly knows a whole lot about the British class system at the turn of the century, and the interactions between servants and aristocracy. He even, to a certain extent, knows about the accents each of those class groups would have and what would make a change in accent a source of conflict. He got that knowledge through research. He’s not above it and neither are you.

So take another look at your characters because there are so many things that inform their accents and not bothering to look into it is just foolish. Location (past and present), history and education, age, wealth, gender, sexual identification, and race all can play a part in your character’s voice. 

And that’s really what this boils down to; voice. We talk about it a lot in screenplays in a general way, because so much of the story is conveyed with dialogue, but we rarely deep dive into the why’s of our characters voices.

Honestly, often times you don’t have to (sad but true); you can get away with not doing much research and leaning on preconceived notions of accents, but in the end it won’t help your story. The voice of your characters is where so much of their personality and history can shine. They are a fact of life. It’s in your best interest to do some research and learn about them. As a reader, those details stand out. As a reader, I can tell the difference between a well researched voice and a poorly researched voice. It stands out on the page, like all the other details in your script.

Ultimately, researching the accent (and, more broadly, the voice) of your character, can be the difference between making it in the industry and not. And the best part, maybe you’ll learn something you didn’t know before, which is one of the best parts about writing.

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