So, I've got a couple of characters from other countries in a WIP

DAgent

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For context, this is a small group of freedom fighters from different parts of the world, roaming around Nazis occupied France, performing (unsanctioned as they are all technically civilians) hit and run attacks on Nazis. Some of them aren't even European, either in terms of nationality or of ethnic descent.

And while I'm pretty sure I've avoided any cultural stereotypes about any of their ethnic groups or nationality, I've also avoided putting in anything into their dialogues to show their accents. But I have had another character (their prisoner who is the main POV character) try to wonder where they are from given their accents which he's not familiar with. Even the narrative is deliberately being vague as no mention is made of where they are from.

The thing that struck me here is just how much of a characters culture (including accent) do you actual need to show for readers to realise where they are from, and how do you make sure your not being offensive by including any such details? For example, does altering their dialogue to show the fact they are not speaking their native tongue mean your are being racist by default? Or is that just an issue with a person who might just see any acknowledgement of that persons heritage/culture/etc as being such?
 

Jo Zebedee

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I hit this with a character in my last book who is French. In the end I kept it fairly bland, with just a few drop in bits to indicate French, but, in turn, I toned down the other character too.
 

msstice

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  1. My personal opinion is that you should write the way you want. Worrying about who will be offended by what gets us into an artificial world that is even more a prisoner to our immediate time than a normal story you write from the heart. Of course, writers who want to be very commercially successful may have to adhere to various contemporary social mores very delicately in order to attain a suitable anodyne colorless facelessness that sells to the largest paying audience. Like primetime television, which is careful only to offend the people who are least likely to cause an exodus of advertisers.
  2. If I were writing this, I would be most concerned that accents, actually written out on the page, will cause a comic effect. I'm a great believer of using voice to distinguish characters. I would rather use differences in expressions, differences in tastes and attitudes, to bring out differences in cultures.
 

Wayne Mack

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I would focus on sprinkling in a few words from the characters' languages, just enough to give the reader a flavor of each character's speech. I find that accents quickly get tedious to read (and to write). This, however, makes having the main PoV guess nationalities a little pointless.
 

Brian G Turner

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But I have had another character (their prisoner who is the main POV character) try to wonder where they are from given their accents which he's not familiar
Just have the POV character recognise basic country accents, problem solved. This also shows your POV character has some intelligence, and saves you having to fumble through pages of "guess the accent" which will be unimportant to the reader.
 

DAgent

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  1. My personal opinion is that you should write the way you want. Worrying about who will be offended by what gets us into an artificial world that is even more a prisoner to our immediate time than a normal story you write from the heart. Of course, writers who want to be very commercially successful may have to adhere to various contemporary social mores very delicately in order to attain a suitable anodyne colorless facelessness that sells to the largest paying audience. Like primetime television, which is careful only to offend the people who are least likely to cause an exodus of advertisers.
  2. If I were writing this, I would be most concerned that accents, actually written out on the page, will cause a comic effect. I'm a great believer of using voice to distinguish characters. I would rather use differences in expressions, differences in tastes and attitudes, to bring out differences in cultures.
Yeah, that seems to be a pitfall which I usually see with French accents more than anything else, at least on TV shows where the accent seems to go incredibly over the top and accidently goes comedic. Reading the "accent" and how it changes spelling of words has a similar effect, especially when someone seems to have gone to town on the sentence with the apostrophe to split words up.
 

DAgent

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I would focus on sprinkling in a few words from the characters' languages, just enough to give the reader a flavor of each character's speech. I find that accents quickly get tedious to read (and to write). This, however, makes having the main PoV guess nationalities a little pointless.
Yeah, so far I've avoided doing that as well, mainly because the character is meant to be fluid in several languages, though not a linguist. It's more that the prisoner is utterly unfamiliar with this characters accent or appearance, but he has managed to cross off a couple of similar but different accents.
 

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Steve Harrison

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My latest WIP is set in the Vatican and so far I have major characters who are American, British, Italian, German and Polish, with more nationalities to come. I don't want to get bogged down in accents and perceived national traits, trusting instead that the characters and their backgrounds - and perhaps minor speech nuances when they speak English - will provide enough information for readers to 'see' and 'hear' them.

I'll have a better idea if this works once I finish the draft and start editing, but I do believe that for most of my target audience (if it exists!), the familiar multi-national setting will mean they are prepped regarding the characters from the start.
 

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All the above, to which I'd add don't forget about dress, food, religion, and other cultural manifestations. You don't have to make accent carry the whole load.
 

Jo Zebedee

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It can work two ways this. I’ve just had a review that says characters in a popular book of mine all sound the same - because they are all northern Irish. The reviewer isn’t close enough to know the nuances. We have culchies, townies and landed gentry

Yes I absolutely nailed the variant accents. But that only matters if it was recognised - if not, even accurate, it was a tick against the novel
 

sknox

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In addition, there are any number of people who will think you are wrong merely because what you've written doesn't fit their preconceptions. This, btw, applies to a very wide range of topics.

At best, I try to avoid what I *know* to be wrong, will do however much research I think is appropriate to discover what is right (or nearly so), and resign myself that there will be someone out there for whom it is jarring.
 

JunkMonkey

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A lot of what identifies a speaker as being a non-native English speaker is not necessarily an 'accent' (the way they say particular words) but the patterns of speech. (Which would include all those unconscious noises we make as we talk.)

A drama teacher of mine pointed out that the Russian language doesn't have articles. They have no words for 'The' or 'A' in Russian. So where a native English speaker would say, "I put a cup on the table." A Russian would say (the equivalent of), "I put cup on table." - which, confusingly, could mean:
"I put the cup on a table"
or
"I put a cup on the table" - you would have to have context to know which.

And similarly a British 'don't interrupt me, I'm uncertain but thinking" noise might be "erm..." a Russian would be more likely to make a much more nasal, "Gnnnea..." sound. I'm not sure writing "Gnnnea..." on the page would make the reader think the character was more Russian but an actor would use that. But if I was writing a Russian character I would lose as many articles from his speech as possible. Especially at times of stress. People revert to their normal speaking voice /patterns when pressured.

There is no 'continuous present' tense in French. "Je fais" means 'I do [something]' and ‘I am doing [something]’.

German tends to have the verbs at the ends of the sentence: (to use Danny's cliché example) "For you the war is over."

Non-native speakers will often say things in English that sound slightly 'off' somehow to us but make perfectly grammatical sense to them.
 

JunkMonkey

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" A Russian would say (the equivalent of), "I put cup on table." - which, confusingly, could mean:
"I put the cup on a table"
or
"I put a cup on the table" - you would have to have context to know which.

or, I realised afterwards, also:

"I put the cup on the table"

and

"I put a cup on a table".

Russian assembly instruction must be fun.
 

DAgent

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It can work two ways this. I’ve just had a review that says characters in a popular book of mine all sound the same - because they are all northern Irish. The reviewer isn’t close enough to know the nuances. We have culchies, townies and landed gentry

Yes I absolutely nailed the variant accents. But that only matters if it was recognised - if not, even accurate, it was a tick against the novel
Yeah, I was afraid something like that would happen too. Did you ever state what the accents were at all in the story? Either in the text or someone from part of Northern Ireland calling out someone else's accent for some reason?
 

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