I want to talk to you about this excerpt from Rowling’s new book.
There are rules in writing that can, and should, be ignored and broken whenever it is useful to do so. One such rule is that you should never write a character’s accent. Rowling’s attempt to do a working-class voice here is a perfect example of why this is a rule, but I’m going to go into a bit of detail anyway.
The central tenet of writing, at least for genre and popular fiction, is that your book should be pretty easy to read. You don’t need a simple plot or bland characters or any of that – no, I’m talking about the basic act of reading it. If you’re stumbling over a sentence and having to reread it, or getting lost in a paragraph, something is wrong and needs fixing. The squishy innards of a book can be as confusing and convoluted as you like and still work, but you have to be able to enjoy scrabbling down into the guts.
Writing the accent does two things that conflict with this tenet, though. Firstly, it’s just straight up hard to read. You’re not hearing the character’s voice here, what you’re doing is third hand deciphering an alien text. This isn’t the character speaking, this is someone talking as the character, which is a disconnect you should try and avoid in writing altogether.
When I was learning to write, my teacher gave me some excellent advice. There are certain things that readers don’t actually read in a text. You want to make it clear who is saying a particular line? Easy. Just add “John said”. It looks bland and normal, sure – why not something much more interesting, such as “John espoused”? – but readers, by and large, don’t care. It’s a prompt, nothing more. It’s all a reader actually needs. It keeps the mind on track and doesn’t get in the way.
So, what’s going on with this written accent business? It’s reminding you that you’re reading a book, interfering with the flow. This is why, generally, you shouldn’t do it. If you want to make it clear that they have a thick accent, just say so in a prompt.
“Well, he had these head pains and he was definitely nervous. Depressed maybe,” said Janice, dropping the softer sounds from each word as locals often did. It forced Strike to listen a little harder, though he doubted it was an intentional ploy.
Yeah, that uses more words, but I still think that gets the point across in a more fluid manner. You’re not tripping over the words and trying to unpick them, even if the person hearing the words is.
The second, and perhaps more important reason why you shouldn’t write the accent, however, is that you are inevitably going to piss someone off. At best, you’re going to end up being insensitive towards a culture or class, and at worse you’ll paint yourself as downright insulting towards them.
Now, I can’t speak for the working class here – I’m about as middle class as it gets; I mean, fuck, I’ve had the time to write six novels while having a garbage day job that pays a pittance and not had to worry about where the rent or the food is coming from. I don’t get to talk about how the working class might feel about this depiction in any real detail.
But here’s the thing: writing the accent is a statement on how you, the author, see those people. It’s not an interpretation, it is a fact of the fabric of that universe. Writing the language is telling the reader that it is important that you know these people are hard to understand, that they don’t speak like normal people. Whether that’s the intention or not, you are giving needless weight to this aspect.
Now, in many cases this is something you want to do. The Expanse books do this to a fantastic degree with the Belters and their almost entirely incomprehensible language. It immediately shows how unique these people have become, how distant they are from their roots on the inner planets. Their language is a potent fuck you to the Inners, used almost entirely among people who already know it or just to show an Inner that they aren’t welcome. It’s an insight into the culture of the Belt and the people who live there. It tells you more than just where that character is from, it tells you what that means.
It’s the difference between character and caricature. One is expansive and purposeful; its use is to tell you something about the characters that is important. The other is reductive, cheap paint that flakes off the moment you run a fingernail across the frame.
One leads to a fleshed-out group of people that readers can connect with and find common ground, whether they like them or not. The other leads to comparisons with Warhammer 40k Orks.
(Incidentally, the Ork-speak of 40k does have an important and weighty purpose behind it. The Orks, as a race, are scavengers. They don’t really build anything, they just steal it and smash it together into these hideous monstrosities that, somehow, work a lot better than they are supposed to. This is even true of their language. They’ve stolen our language, chopped it up, smashed it all together again, painted red go-faster stripes on it, and ended up wiv dis propa orky language what hoomies can sorta undastand but it aint dere’s no more. Tells you a lot about who they are as a people.)
I don’t mean to shit on Rowling too much about this – there are a lot more important things I can shit on her for, such as her vile anti-trans mentality – and ultimately a lot what I’ve said here today is very much a personal preference thing. I’m very much of the opinion that the way people speak is important in books and drawing attention to specifics can be a very powerful tool when used right. That seems to be a very different approach to Rowling’s.
I also happen to think that trans-women are women and not sexual deviants who want to jump cis women in toilets. Another difference between me and Rowling, I guess.
[Edited to fix a dozy spelling mistake.]
Want to see my philosophy on this in action? Maybe take a look at Ghosts on the Wind, available in print and ebook on Amazon.