Transliterating Accents (If that's the right word)

by Twilight Dragon
(Adelaide, South Australia)

Hey Glen me again.


I'm struggling with the dialogue of one of my characters in a story.

Most of the characters, and the setting, are English and thus so is their dialogue. But one character, a woman named Madeline, is on transfer from France. She understands English perfectly, but speaks with a very heavy French accent, substitutes words, and if she's really bored/unimpressed with who she's talking to, she'll just speak plain French.

I took French class back in primary school, so I have a basic understanding of French words. But how exactly do I portray her heavy accent without falling into the cliched, slurred and frankly incorrect method of replacing 'the' with 'zhe' (as the French have their own 'th' words, thalassotherapie being a prime example, I cannot believe they would slur their words like this).

And in case this is the option you come up with, I don't live in the proximity of any French people for inspiration.

Thanks again, Glen

Answer: Well, I don't know how accurate the "zhe" for "the" is for a character from France, but "da" for "the" is a fairly common pronunciation among French Canadians (and Maritime Canadians for that matter).

However, trying to capture an accent with phonetic spelling is often not the best solution, because it makes the reader work harder to decode what is being said.

One option is to use conventional spelling, but capture the essence of the accent through the character's word choice, sentence structure, figures of speech, etc. If your French speaker is not very fluent in English, there are certain mistakes she may be more prone to make -- in her attempt to translate French sentences in her head into their English equivalent.

Another option is to also have her use occasional French expressions.

However, to do this with authenticity, you pretty much have to listen to some French people speaking in English, whose background is similar to your character. Sorry, but I don't know a lot of shortcuts here. You need to be able to hear your character's voice in your head.

If you can't find even videos of French people speaking English to study (not too likely), you should at least research the kinds of mistakes your character is likely to make.

You can get away with a little less authenticity in genre fiction than literary fiction, but if you aren't confident, consider that less is more. In other words, use a few French-isms to establish the character, but have her stick to English most of the time.

Best of luck.

Click here to post comments

Join in and submit your own question/topic! It's easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to Character Invite.


 Step-by-Step Novel Planning Workbook


NEW! Make Money Writing Nonfiction Articles


"I've read more than fifty books on writing, writing novels, etc., but your website has the most useful and practical guidance. Now that I understand how a novel is structured, I will rewrite mine, confident that it will be a more interesting novel." - Lloyd Edwards



"Thanks to your "Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps," I was able to take a story that I simply just fooled around with and went willy nilly all over, into a clearly defined, intriguing battle where two characters fight to keep their relationship intact, and try to find a balance in control of themselves and their lives. Thanks to you, I'm not ashamed of the poor organization of my writing." - Nommanic Ragus

"I am so glad I found your site. It has helped me in so many ways, and has given me more confidence about myself and my work. Thank you for making this valuable resource, for me and my fellow writers. Perhaps you'll hear about me someday...I'll owe it to you." - Ruth, Milton, U.S.A.

"I never knew what to do with all the characters in my head, but since discovering Dramatica I am writing again in my spare time. Thank you for making this available. Yes, it is a bit complex, and it does take time, but I love it because it works." - Colin Shoeman

"I came across your website by chance. It is a plethora of knowledge, written in a simplistic way to help aspiring writers. I truly appreciate all of the information you have provided to help me successfully (relative term) write my novel. Thank you very much!" - Leo T. Rollins

"I can honestly say that this is the first website that is really helpful. You manage to answer complex questions in relatively short articles and with really intelligent answers. Thank you for taking the time to write these articles and sharing them so generously." - Chrystelle Nash

"...had no idea that a simple click would give me such a wealth of valuable information. The site not only offered extremely clear and helpful instructions but was a very enjoyable read as well. The education from your wonderful site has made me a better writer and your words have inspired me to get back to work on my novel. I wish to give you a heartfelt thanks for How to Write a Book Now, sir." -- Mike Chiero