Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Choosing the words that your characters will use.

Yes, I am straying from talking about hockey - WHOOO-HOOO! PENGUINS WIN AGAINST THE FLYERS 5-3! WE ARE MOVING ON WITH THE PLAYOFFS!!!

And I am straying from my childhood stories of exploding pressure cookers, tree fights, and frisbee mayhem in this post today. Also, you won’t find any strange stories involving fuzzy coleslaw, penny-ante poker, and skinny dipping with unknown aquatic creatures.

I am going to talk about . . . writing.

Gasp! Is Michelle sick? Does she have some incurable disease and will be dead by the end of April? Where do we send the flowers?

I am not ill - at least I hope not - although you can still send me the flowers despite my raging allergies. The problem deals with the blog title above, or rather the tiny description below it.

Stories of surly humor. On occasion bits of useful information although I am trying to stomp out that bad habit.

Yeah, I knew this last sentence would bite me in the ass eventually. And speaking of sentences . . . do you like the transition into the next part?

. . .sentences involving characters and the words that they use.

It’s an important topic not usually discussed, or at least no one talks about it often enough and this is a real shame. A story has its own unique flow and rhythm of words that make the paragraphs stand out and the characters believable while entertaining. Also, each person in the story has their own traits and speech. Not everyone talks alike in the real world, so the same has to be said for the fictional one.

Let me give you an example. My main character is pure rural country, redneck, hillbilly (and I know how that goes - I am a country girl through-and-through). Here is a piece from a chapter I should be finishing right now:

- It made sense. Graham never claimed he would completely understand such a thing, but he did start to figure out its peculiarities -

The above sentence is wrong. Why? Because the word, “peculiarities,” is not a common enough term for him to use frequently. Although my character knows the word and its meaning, this is not within his “mental dictionary.”

We all have mental dictionaries we use when talking or writing. Those familiar ticks stuck in our vocabulary and it would take an imaginary crowbar to pry them out. The few I overuse constantly on my blog are: Well, um, huh, so, anyhow, anyway, yeah, and sigh. I know I overuse them . . . sigh. But it shows my own unique personality within my writing.

Well . . . anyhow . . .

The piece above is a simple fix. I take out the word “peculiarities” and substitute something else.

- Graham never claimed he would completely understand such a thing, but he did start to figure out its ways like sorting the hens from the roosters -

Again, the above sentence is wrong. Why? My character is abrupt in his speech. We are country people. We have livestock to take care of and fields to sow. My character needs to get straight to the point.

- Graham never claimed he would completely understand such a thing, but he did start to figure out its ways -

Perhaps the above sentence isn’t flashy, but it IS the character. Also, the sentence doesn’t have to have pizzazz until it becomes cliched. At this moment in the story, I only need something to continue with the overall flow of the plot.

Let me show you another instance. Below is a part involving two gang members talking.

- “Good day, sir. Could you please pass me the altered firearm so I might cause death upon yonder rival enemy standing at the street corner?” -

It’s not going to happen in a million years. There is no way you will convince me two gang members would talk this way. Instead . . .

- “Bro, pass me the sawed-off so I can pump that dumb fuck dead.” -

I would believe this one. In fact, I’m looking behind my shoulder right now to make sure I don’t see a gun barrel aimed at my back.

We have to fully understand our characters and their situations within every aspect of our stories. They need to act and talk a certain way within the context while still entertaining the reader and continuing the plot. Let your characters have their own mental dictionaries so they can have unique personalities.


  1. Yes. And if we model our MCs on real life people we know very well, or a combination of peoples, it's even easier to know what will come out of their mouths...because we've heard it often before. :)

  2. Angie: Hah!

    MDGF: I didn't know the Pens had advanced. Congrats!

    You and your flaming poodles of death are given a (brief) encore over at my place today.

  3. Good stuff, Michelle. And the "mental dictionary" is a crucial, yet under-emphasized, element in writing.

    Or, in my case, that stuff about the mental thinkin', man, no one ever talks about that crap.

  4. Angie: Why, whatever could you mean? And who could you be referring to...snicker.

    Tru dat! But only so long as we know how they truly act and if it is in the way we expect. Lots of people say one thing and think differently. Gotta be careful about those.

    Suldog: Yup! Now we're waiting for Rangers/Caps and Devils/Louisana?(I think) to finish their 7th rounds before we figure out who the Pens will play.

    I saw the encore on your blog. I'm still trying to figure out when I get paid...

    Chris: Thanks for backing me up on this! I thought I was the only person who saw this topic being passed by. Mental thinkin' man - hmm... now there's a topic to discuss...

  5. Thanks Michelle. That's great instruction. I'm not a writer, but I do like to blog. And I try really hard to not let my "Valley Girl" be seen in my blogs, but what the hell. You've inspired me. You know, like I'm gonna show the real me. Like, for sure.

  6. love it. In fact, i'm committing an act of plagerisim right now and saving it to my "writing tips" file. Hope you don't mind...

  7. Theresa: Be yourself and great writing shines through! Like fer shur, girlfriend!

    Skyeblu: I don't mind. Actually I find it a compliment.

    WHOO-HOO! My first writing lawsuit!

  8. Wow, this is a really good post and eloquently stated. Or (to paraphrase your words)...You said it damn good, girl.

  9. Eric: Straight up Compton, bro!

    (Really, I never talk like that, ever.)


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