How do accents influence our subconscious expectations for fictional characters? Join me today as I discuss how different types of accents signal certain stereotypes to readers and viewers, and how this trend might keep us from exploring broader possibilities. Scroll down to read the blog, or watch the video!
When I read a book, I tend to internally create an accent for each character and, I have discovered, so do many other readers.
Sometimes the character has a clipped, cultured British accent, which always either represents an intelligent, educated good guy or an intelligent, educated bad guy. The accent, therefore, seems to signal not only education level but also either dignified goodness or intellectual evil.
For some reason, the Cockney/Welsh/Yorkshire type accents represent kind-hearted but naive or uneducated characters--or the stupid minions to the bad guy who possesses the British accent. You'll notice that the orcs in the Lord of the Rings have that "minion" accent when they talk about eating the hobbits.
What's in vogue? The Scottish/Irish accents that you see in Brave, How to Train Your Dragon, and other fantasy adventures. Irish is interesting, because a stylized version of it (actually closer to a Bristol/West Country accent) is the favorite accent to portray pirates--yet pirates, historically, were from all over the world. An Irish pirate occurred, certainly, but by no means were all pirates Irish. An interesting discussion in National Geographic suggests that it probably originated with Robert Newton, actor for the character of Long John Silver in Disney's 1950 film Treasure Island. (Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, it seems, can also be credited with popularizing the public perception of pirates as having wooden legs, eye patches, parrots on their shoulders, and an obsession with maps which mark their treasure with a large X.)
I'm guessing the Cold War influenced the fact that a Russian accent signals a villainous mastermind. World War II probably influenced a similar trend for German accents, although I've seen a few scenarios recently where a German accent might be used endearingly of some stranger.
The accents of Australia and the American West signal the types of personalities that take risks no one else will take, wrangling monsters, and performing daredevil stunts. That's how you get Buck the weasel in Ice Age 3, who doesn't seem to understand the concept of rational fear, and Jake the kangaroo rat in The Rescuers Down Under, who has both the heart of a romantic and the nerves to wrangle random toothy creatures into serving as his steeds.
Continuing on, you two main types of accents from the American South: the uneducated, backwoods country bumpkin drawl, and the cultured Southern gentleman/belle. Billy Anderson has a fantastic comedy sketch on some of the problems with these stereotypes. "I know when I hear that accent that some ignorant stuff is going to go down... 'Oh, he's a rich Southerner! Give him that accent Kevin Spacey does in all his movies!'"
There's a lot more we could explore, but the main point is that accent tends to lead expectation. We expect certain things from certain characters based on the accents they exhibit.
It's frustrating for me as a writer, because some characters are "born" into certain accents, and I find that the accents tend to develop into the classic stereotypes. Thus, I have to be intentional about making sure that I don't perpetuate a mindless stereotype through my use of character dialogue, accent, colloquialisms, and speech patterns.
On the fun side, a fictional accent can be used intelligently in a story to point out a character who is out-of-place from the expected norm or who is an "outsider," as author Meghan Whalen Turner does in this scene from The King of Attolia. (You can read my whole review here.)
Do you have a favorite accent? An accent pet peeve? A related observation? Drop me a line in the comments below and tell me!
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