Friday, July 1, 2022

Writing an Un-Put-Downable Character (Part 6 of 10): Language



by A.C. Williams @ACW_Author

We are halfway through our ten steps to writing an awesome character! I hope this series has been useful. I love creating characters, so I’m delighted to be able to share what I’ve learned. 

Last week we talked about how giving your characters interests makes them feel well-rounded and fully realized. Today, we’re going to talk about Language. 

Language is one of the most valuable tools you have to show readers information about your characters without having to tell them. Generally when I talk about a character’s language in a story, I focus on three areas: Dialect, Vocabulary, and Idiom. 

Dialect

Dialect is usually what most people think of when we bring up using language to flesh out a character. Dialect is the intentional misspelling of words to represent a character’s accent, cultural upbringing, or education level.

Some authors have done it well. Notable examples are The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain), To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), and the Harry Potter books (J.K. Rowling). But writing dialect walks a narrow line between characterization and stereotyping. It’s become a bit of a hot button issue in modern times.

Beyond the potential for offending people, writing in a dialect can be really confusing to readers. If your readers are struggling to understand the misspelled words, it will take them out of the story. 

This is why I normally recommend other ways of expressing accent, culture, or education in storytelling. Sure, there are times when some dialectical writing will add depth to a character, but in my opinion, it should be used sparingly. 

Vocabulary

Have you eaten a bowl of Hoppin’ John? What about Carolina peas and rice? Or what about some tasty black-eyed peas on rice? Yes, they are all the same dish. But depending on where you are within the United States, people call it by different names. (Pop, soda, or coke, anyone?)

One of the best ways you can use language to develop a character is to know how they speak. What words would they use? Take Texas and Georgia for example. Both states are what would generally be called The South, but their cultures are completely different. If you want boiled peanuts, fresh peaches, and access to great Cuban or Jamaican food, Georgia is a better bet. If you want a great steak, Mexican culture, and more cowboy hats than you can shake a stick at, go to Texas.

These are just examples within the U.S. Venture out a bit more to a country like England or Russia or Japan, and you’ll find some spectacular regional dialects that will very easily show a reader where a character is from. You just have to do your research.

Idiom

Has anyone ever pulled the fur over your ears? No? What about the wool over your eyes? 

Do you know what it would mean to watch carrots grow from underneath? Maybe you’re more familiar with pushing up daisies?

In case you aren’t familiar with idiom, it’s metaphorical language we use to communicate a feeling, a thought, or a concept using the terms of something else. 

Kick the bucket. Piece of cake. Raining cats and dogs. Kill two birds with one stone. Letting the cat out of the bag. The list goes on and on and on. 

But here’s the thing about idiom: It changes from culture to culture.

Idiom is awesome. But it is the hardest tool to use when you’re trying to create a character. You probably guessed that both of those examples above are idiom. One is American. The other is German. I worked for a German company for five years, and one of my colleagues grew up in the Black Forest. So we had a lot of conversations about the differences and surprising similarities between American and German idiom. 

If you’re going to use idiom in your characterization, be sure that you are very experienced in the culture you’re writing. Much like dialect, if you just try to wing this, you could end up insulting someone. So be sure you know the culture you’re using, and always make sure you have a sensitivity reader as well. 

But what about speculative fiction?

With speculative fiction (science fiction and fantasy), you get to create the world where your characters play. You create their language, their culture, their idiom, etc. Isn’t that easier than writing contemporary or historical fiction?

Not at all.

Whatever world you build in your speculative fiction novel or series, it must be complete, cohesive, and consistent. You can’t just drop random words or sayings into your characters’ conversations without having some reason for them to be there. In this way, writing speculative fiction is actually a bit more challenging than other genres. For historical or contemporary fiction, you can look up a cultural norm, or you can interview someone from that culture to help you understand how to proceed. With speculative fiction, all of that information must come from your own imagination.

If you’re wired that way, go for it. Just be sure you take that into account before you create a world.

Listen to people around you, how they talk, what they say, why they say it. You’re surrounded by examples of linguistic characterization every day. So keep your ears open.

Here’s where we are in our ten-step journey!

Personality 
Conflict 
Contradictions 
History 
Interests 
Language 
Internalization 
Dreams 
Observables 
Growth

TWEETABLE
PART 7 INTERNAL DIALOGUE: WRITING THE UN-PUT-DOWNABLE CHARACTER

Award-winning author, A.C. Williams is a coffee-drinking, sushi-eating, story-telling nerd who loves cats, country living, and all things Japanese. She’d rather be barefoot, and if she isn’t, her socks won’t match. She has authored eight novels, two novellas, three devotional books, and more flash fiction than you can shake a stick at. A senior partner at the award-winning Uncommon Universes Press, she is passionate about stories and the authors who write them. Learn more about her book coaching and follow her adventures online at https://www.amycwilliams.com.

1 comment: