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.