When you’re writing a screenplay, you may find yourself creating characters who are from another country – or a specific part of the United States – that you feel should speak in a way that reflects their geographic origin.
In other words, you want to give a character an accent. You NEED to give a character an accent. You CAN’T IMAGINE your character NOT having an accent.
First, if you’re writing a comedy and using the accent of a character to get a laugh, it not only risks offending whatever group you’re imitating, it’s one of the cheapest laughs you can get. Don’t do it.
If you’re not going for a cheap laugh, here’s the general rule: Write the accent in the description. For example, “KLAUS speaks in a German accent” written in the description of the character indicates that Klaus’s dialogue would be read with a German accent.
But write Klaus’s dialogue the same as other dialogue in the script. It would be up to the actor to “do the accent.”
I would avoid trying to creatively spell words, or using broken English. Unless you’re a pro, it’s going to be extremely difficult to nail the right phrasing, and if you miss, you risk creating a stereotype and offending someone of that region.
Plus, it’s stepping on the actors toes a bit too much. If they want to do the accent, let them do the accent. If not, then maybe it might read better WITHOUT the accent. You never know until you hear it.
“But Eric, the character is named MR. WONG! He was born in Hong Kong and just moved to the U.S. a few years ago, he WOULD have an accent!”
First, I wouldn’t attempt creating such a character unless you are familiar with Hong Kong, or recent Hong Kong immigrants. Otherwise you might create a stereotype who speaks in broken English and gets a few cheap laughs, but ultimately offends the Asian American working in the agency you submitted your script to and oh, that’s funny, they won’t read anything else you sent them…
If you DO have familiarity with people from Hong Kong, just give the character a little bit of description that shows off your expertise, such as:
Behind the restaurant CHRIS WONG squats in the alley, Hong Kong style, smoking a cigarette, and reading a Chinese newspaper.
Again, I would still avoid creatively spelling Chris’s dialogue or fudging his grammar. (The exception to this is if you’re a pro and have absorbed the language of such a character. Or, if you are from that area yourself.)
“But Eric, what about Mart Twain? Didn’t he modify his spelling to reflect race, ethnicity, and region?”
Yes, he did. But, he’s also considered one of the greatest American writers OF ALL TIME.
Plus, Sammy C. wasn’t a screenwriter living in the post-Civil Rights Era.
In other words, sometimes it’s best to follow the old adage: “What works in the 19th century, stays in the 19th century…”
And lastly, as screenwriters, we have enough on our plate to worry about – plot, conflict, tone, character arcs, etc., etc., etc… Trying to write dialogue in a way that reflects the accent of the character is an unnecessary burden that more likely detract from your script than add to it.
Hope that helps, and…
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