Six Questions To Ask About A Story: #5

Here's the next installment in the Fire Escape's summer series of six questions to ask about a story. This time, let's talk about accents.

Question Five: Does a storyteller use accent to cue character traits?

How the popular storytellers of our day handle accent is an interesting way to measure a society's xenophobia (fear of stranger) versus our philoxenos (love of stranger). The Sophisticated Evil Genius with an upper class British accent is still rampant in American film, for example. Niko, the villain/protagonist in Rockstar's bestselling video game Grand Theft Auto, was cast carefully as an Eastern European. And as I watched the previews of forthcoming movies before Dark Knight, and then scrutinized the role of the blockbuster's Hong Kong money launderer played by Chin Han, I wondered about an emergent undercurrent of China-fear in our culture -- a trend that might have been fueled by American coverage of the opening ceremonies in Beijing.

Listen to writer/actor Mindy Kaling (Kelly Kapoor of The Office) describe her experience of Hollywood's dilemma on Letterman:

When it comes to children's and teen books, it's interesting to note how and why the author conveys accent in conversation and description. Is an "ethnic" character's accent ignored altogether? Is the difference communicated solely through a more stilted vocabulary or sentence structure? Does the author use accent as a mechanism to get us to root for or against a character?

YA chick lit, for example, may sometimes employ the characterization shortcut of how we as a society perceive American regional accents. Flipping through the pile of ARCs on my desk, I find one protagonist who is bothered by a "metallic Southern drawl that grates on (her) consciousness."

Books about immigrants often use accent to emphasize that a character is newer to America or more traditional, but sometimes it can be a lazy way to underline that a minor antagonist is strict and unyielding. Japanese writers of Manga rely on regional differences in language to send messages to their readers, using the Osaka dialect and accent as a way to signify that a character is funny and earthy.

Accents get more interesting, however, as books move from the page to audio and movie adaptations. In the teaser trailer of TWILIGHT by Stephenie Meyers, for example, Kenyan-born Edi Gathegi seems to have been directed to "bring the accent" for his role as Laurent, the least lethal of the villain vampires. Listen to how foreign he sounds in the trailer versus how he sounds in real life. Out here on the Fire Escape, I find myself wondering why they wanted the change.


Lisa Yee said…
Love the clip!
Heidi Quist said…
I think there is actually a pretty common problem that gets in the way of determining the readers' response to a particular accent. That is that too often writers use accent as an excuse for character. They use the accent as one of the few or only unique things about a character, or as a substitute for voice if nothing else, which resulsts in perpetuation stereotypes. I won't embarrass any authors, but I've noticed too many times someone thinking, for example, that the Southern accent is really cute and they like the stereotyped Southern belle, so they create a character who is nothing more than a cliche'd girl with a southern accent. Of course that's intra America rather than international, but it applies to the British thing too. People create British characters pretty often as a substitute for the ability to create a sophisticated American. Pretty weak writing and perpetuates a stereotype that Brits are all sophisticated. I'm sure some of them don't mind that, but it's not terribly accurate. But this isn't just done in fiction, either. It's done with broadcasting companies fairly often too--they get British anchors to make themselves sound more sophisticated. Really silly, but really true.
Mitali Perkins said…
Yes, Lisa, I'm a big fan of Mindy Kaling -- she has a bright future in comedy as a storyteller. And Heidi, it's great that you're so aware of accents. I find most people to be somewhat oblivious to how we are being played when it comes to voices.
Sunila Samuel said…
First off, I just wanted to say that I love this blog! Your discussion of accents reminds me of the Indian-born character, Mohinder, on the NBC show "Heroes." In current episodes, the actor effects a British-influenced accent. But in the beginning of the show, he sounded more like a native of India. Did the directors have him "tone down" his Indian accent? When I noticed this change, I was extremely disappointed and annoyed.
Jason Low said…
Mitali, I've enjoyed your six questions to ask about a story very much. Specifically since it relates so heavily to how race is treated in stories. Many politically correct pieces I've read are much too negative, while your piece stays focused on methodically deconstructing how characters are depicted in books and how they can be made more authentic by pushing the writing more. Your piece also does a great job of making the subject of race approachable, which is difficult, since people are reluctant to discuss it openly for fear of coming off ignorant. I wrote a short piece about discussing race at: if you want to check it out. I will most likely be linking to this piece real soon. Thanks!