I already touched on this topic in Blog 37: On The Importance Of Words, but I wanted to write more about the language and terminology that we use.
As a writer getting the language and terminology right for your characters, setting, plot and storyline is important. The writers who nail this often have the best-selling novels, whilst the writers who don’t, often trail behind. Now that’s not to say that every best-selling novel is a good book and every other book is bad, but you can definitely tell when a book is more likely to be good, based on the language and terminology that the author uses.
Language and terminology can be used to add colour and complexity to your characters without compromising on your word count. Sticking to stereotypes for now, the evilness of your antagonists can be increased with the language and terminology that they use. If their language is mean, cold, and/or condescending, it is likely that the reader will ‘dislike’ these characters. Similarly, the goodness of your protagonists can be amplified by the honesty, good-will and politeness that may shine through in how they speak and interact with other characters. Not only this, but the language and terminology used by characters when they talk about other characters, can be used to paint pictures and nudge the reader’s opinions of those other characters. This happens all the time in real life, you see it in advertising, music, the media, and pretty much every single thing that is written, everyone has an opinion and their own lives, and naturally this will come through in their work, their mannerisms and what they say, even if they’re not aware of it.
Your characters don’t necessarily have to be outright bad or good to disagree. Just as in real life, it is quite probable that your characters may agree and hope for the same result, but they disagree on the methods on how to get there. The Council of Elrond from the Lord Of The Rings is a perfect example here, the characters argue about what should be done with The One Ring. The majority believe it should be destroyed, but they argue about who will bear The One Ring in order to destroy it. The elves do not trust the humans or dwarves and neither do the dwarves or humans trust the elves. Eventually, Frodo offers to take The One Ring to Mordor himself, and ironically the others appear unable to argue with Frodo, he is a Hobbit from The Shire, and he has shown incredible resistance to The One Ring due to that fact that he has been the ring-bearer from the start.
The language and terminology we use can inspire hope and compassion, or it can feed hatred and fear. It can also be used to try and fool people, you could use a clever antagonist who uses what would appear to be ‘positive’ language and terminology as a means to get their own way. Similarly you could have a protagonist who uses the wrong language and terminology and as a result is misunderstood, this often happens in books where there are love triangles, but it is usually more complicated as the main character themselves often can’t decide between two love-interests.
Depending on the language and terminology that is used, lies can be dressed up as opinions, which places them in the realms of facts as opinions are there to be considered, and then these lies can be subtly changed into ‘facts’, until the lies and the facts become so synonymous that no one really knows what the real facts were in the first place. Myths can be dressed up as truths, facts can be dressed up as fiction, and so on and so on. George Orwell’s 1984 is perhaps the most chilling example of this, the main character Winston Smith alters historical records according to the ruling Party, changing the records on who his nation is allied with and fighting against on a daily basis. So much so that he no longer remembers who his nation was supposedly allied with or who they were allied against in the first place. The facts and lies have become synonymous that they end up distorting each other.
Language and terminology can also be used to over dramatize events and it can be used to reiterate and withhold certain information. You can paint an entirely different picture, or mislead your readers, by choosing which words your characters do and don’t say. In some cases you may want to do this, especially if you are writing a mystery, or you wish to conceal the true motives of your characters. As a writer you could paint a ‘negative’ image of your protagonists and a ‘positive’ image of your antagonists in order to keep your readers guessing. You could lead your readers down a false path by being particularly bias towards one character over another and then surprise your reader with the truth at a later date.
The language and terminology may also be used to reflect the time and place that the story is set, as well as the character’s upbringing. If you’re writing a story that is set two hundred years ago, then you might want to look at books written by authors from that time. You will notice that the way the characters in those stories speak is very different to how we speak today. Accents, phrases and idioms can differ widely from era to era and from place to place, some words that would have been commonplace hundreds of years ago are not commonplace today. Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck is a good example of using language and terminology to convey the differing accents and phrases that the characters use.
“Well, we ain’t got any,” George exploded. “Whatever we ain’t got, that’s what you want. God a’mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy. I could go get a job an’ work, an’ no trouble. No mess at all, and when the end of the month come I could take my fifty bucks and go into town and get whatever I want. Why, I could stay in a cathouse all night. I could eat any place I want, hotel or any place, and order any damn thing I could think of. An’ I could do all that every damn month. Get a gallon of whisky, or set in a pool room and play cards or shoot pool.” Lennie knelt and looked over the fire at the angry George. And Lennie’s face was drawn in with terror. “An’ whatta I got,” George went on furiously. “I got you! You can’t keep a job and you lose me ever’ job I get. Jus’ keep me shovin’ all over the country all the time.” (George speaking to Lennie Chapter 1)
“It ain’t so funny, him an’ me goin’ aroun’ together,” George said at last. “Him and me was both born in Auburn. I knowed his Aunt Clara. She took him when he was a baby and raised him up. When his Aunt Clara died, Lennie just come along with me out workin’. Got kinda used to each other after a little while.” (George speaking to Slim Chapter 3)
You can see by the use of apostrophes replacing certain letters that you end up reading George’s lines in the way he would have spoken them. Words and phrases like God a’mighty and cathouse aren’t often used when people speak to each other today. You can also guess the low academic education levels of the characters by the words they use and the order in which they use them. This isn’t surprising given the fact that George and Lennie are two displaced, migrant, ranch workers looking for job opportunities in California during the Great Depression in the United States.
So to wrap this up here are some tips for both fiction and non-fiction; the next time you’re writing, think about who your characters are, what you want the reader to know, and how the character’s words and word order will affect the progression of your story. Think about the tone and intent and what you want to get across to your readers. The next time you read anything, question who the characters are supposed to be, where do they come from? why do they think the way they do? Look at the author’s life and their influences, possible motives, and their target audience. Also, question yourself and where your ideas, beliefs and thoughts stem from, if you can understand yourself and see from other people’s perspectives and lives, then writing complex, realistic characters should become easier for you.
“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
― George Orwell,