Accenting Accents


Accents are always difficult. Movies tend to be the place we hear it most. Who can forget the festival of weird voices that is the move Highlander, where a Frenchman plays an immortal Scot and a Scot (or should that be Shcot) plays an Egyptian? It's a lot of fun, particularly if you're Scottish. Same goes for one of my all-time favourite movies, Brigadoon. And what about the bewildering range of regional accents among the dwarves in Peter Jackson's Hobbit Movies?

The great Mark Kermode has a good video blog about this. He emphasises the importance of the accent sounding natural, both to those watching who know the accent well, but also to those who don't have an ear for it but can spot someone who is not comfortable in their voice. An actor forced into using a voice they cannot truly inhabit is working at a disadvantage to themselves and to the movie. That awkwardness can chatter the suspension of disbelief. There's also the question of accessibility. You don't want the audience wondering what the heck the character is saying because the actor has gone full method on us and is utterly unintelligible.

There's a similar thing going on with accents in fiction. How do I write a character's accent in a way that makes it accessible to the reader, but also convincingly familiar to someone who might recognise it? One of the main characters in The Blade Bearer is called Maelcheon MacAefar. He has, to all intents, a Scottish accent. I used that voice to emphasise the difference between him and the other characters. He has to sound like someone from another culture but still be comprehensible, to have the voice of someone who has lived a hard life, who has struggled. That said, Maelcheon's voice is not that heavily accented. He used to speak in a much broader accent but it came across a bit too much like these guys so I softened it. Still, he clearly sounds different from the others.

I'm not that concerned that his speech will put readers off him. I figured readers won't mind working to get used to a voice as long as that voice sounds convincing and adds to the atmosphere to the book. There is one particular moment where Maelcheon, normally grim and laconic, tells a story that lasts for a good few pages, all in his voice. It's one of my favourite bits of the novel because it presents such a different view on the world we've been inhabiting till that point. I hope it's not off-putting - like an actor talking in an accent that just sounds wrong.

I do wonder what Scottish people will think of him. Will they say, 'Jings, this pseudo-Scots character is one groovy fellow?' Or will they react more along the lines of, 'Crivens, this guy's accent is really bad?'

Don't Shoot Now

Another day, another podcast. This time, two entertaining chaps were discussing the pointlessness of Rogue One and the forthcoming Han Solo movie. One of them said Rogue One did not need to exist because all we ever needed to know about the stolen Death Star plans was in Episode IV. Telling us how the rebels stole the plans and got them to Leia is of no significance - all that counts is what happened after that. Rogue One makes a movie out of a macguffin, a plot catalyst. What's the point in that?

This got me thinking about how we define fandom. To my mind, a true fan wants more stories in that universe, regardless of their content. We want to go back to that place, to return to the galaxy far far away and see more of it. The story that takes us there is only a problem if the finished product doesn't feel right. If the new story still feels like it's taking place in the world we love, then bring it on. I felt this way about the Hobbit movies. The first one was a bit ropy in places - lots of places - but I didn't care. I was just glad to be back in Peter Jackson's Middle Earth. It looked and sounded and felt like the rendering of Tolkein that I fell head over heels for back in 2001 with the first Lord of the Rings movie. I could forgive the flaws in Jackson's Hobbits films because I was a fan - though the adaptation left a lot to be desired, it was enough to be back in that place, going on this adventure.

Problems occur when we return to the same characters or the same world and something is wrong. What happens if it somehow doesn't feel right any more? I'm sure we can all think a movie universe where this has happened, where there is a new movie in a familiar universe but the vibe is all wrong, the plot is too clumsy (or absent) or the characters too thin. It might look like the world we know, might sound like it too, but there is something missing. There is too much to forgive, too many flaws to overlook or to not bother us. This connects, I think, to an earlier blog I wrote about nostalgia. We want to go back to that place but the place has changed, become a gaudy, empty version of the world we once loved.

This is what made Rogue One work for me. There was no real risk of compromising our experiences of the other movies because, by and large, our emotional investment was in a whole new set of characters. The the way the universe looked and sounded was right and, yes, there were some details that took me out of it - Darth Vader's oddly swishing walk, for instance - but the film didn't act like some old friend who has reappeared after years, much changed, but pretending they're still the same old pal.

It's for the same reason, though, that I worry about the Han Solo movie. Now there is a character who carries a lifetime of emotional investment for a whole generation.