I was born in the South. I’ve lived in four Southern states: Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, and Virginia. And I don’t know where the fuck Frank Underwood and Larry the Cable guy are supposed to be from.
There’s a difference between a Tennessee accent and a Texas accent. There are even differences between the regions of a given Southern state, like Texas. People in Nacogdoches don’t sound like people in El Paso. (People in Austin sound like they’re from Southern California, which probably half of them are. The other half are from Dallas.)
To my ear, Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood sounds like somebody from New York doing Foghorn Leghorn, and Daniel Whitney as Larry the Cable guy, with his high-pitched rapidfire whine, sounds like someone on meth trying out for a bit part on the Dukes of Hazzard. Neither of those voices is from a real place.
This matters to me as a writer, even though I don’t write in dialect, so the tone is entirely in the reader’s imagination. I pay attention to how people talk. There is rhythm and vocabulary and feeling behind it that makes each person unique. Caricatures like Frank and Larry are not unique. They’re commodities, like Yosemite Sam mudflaps. Good for a one-time joke, but for a character you make your living from, a character you play hundreds of hours a year to hundreds of thousands of people? It’s just lazy. Worse, it’s not true.
I’m not saying Powers Boothe should have been Frank Underwood because he’s from the South (though he would have been awesome). Jodie Foster is from Los Angeles, and she did a great job as Clarice Starling, who’s from West Virginia. She didn’t hick it up. She learned the region and played it straight.
I’m saying that if you’re going to create compelling fiction, whether on the page or screen, it needs to be true. Frank Underwood and Larry the Cable Guy aren’t true. Maybe they’re unintended commentaries on America itself — a collection of ideas about identity and place, shared by television, which blends them all together into a fine beige paste. Frank and Larry are not real people, even in the fake sense.
The manuscript I’m working on takes place in a fictional Texas county, which gives me leeway on accents and speech patterns and vocabulary. I’m going to use things I’ve observed mostly in East and North Texas, and they may get mashed up. But if the people come off as caricatures, if the deputy sheriff and the coroner and the victim and the accused come across as props in a Law & Order fan script, I will have failed. And that scares the crap out of me. I would hate to work on something for hundreds of hours, only to have the characters come across as hick stereotypes or sock puppets for my own voice.
To help me overcome my concerns, I’m hiring an editor. I’m halfway through the process, having reached out to five very talented people, now paring it down to one or two. It’s my first time to do such a thing, and it’s long overdue. I’ll let you know how it goes.