“Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!” J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Whether it’s Dickens struggling to find the perfect character name or Rachel Maddow working to introduce the word “kerfuffle” into our political discourse, a love of words tends to inspire and delight the people who make a living with them. They flow trippingly from the tongue. You can crunch them between your teeth. They reveal odd corners of our linguistic history. They’re just fun.
So how do you use your love of words in telling your story?
I’ve written before about the dangers of letting your language get in the way of your characters. When the original, beautiful, flowing language comes from you rather than them, you run the risk that your readers are going to notice the writer behind the curtain. You don’t want your language to drag them out of the immersion in your world that is the main reason for reading. Besides, writing your narrative in your characters’ voices rather than your own is just too powerful a character-creation tool to ignore. So don’t exercise your love of words unless your characters have a love of words.
Note: this doesn’t mean all your characters have to be sophisticated and erudite, with obscure and glowing vocabularies. I’ve often come across a fresh and surprising use of words from people who didn’t necessarily have a formal education. Like the man here in Ashfield who once told me, “Well, I was married for eight years, with another one for six years, been with the one I’m with now for ten years, and that’s half my life chewed up.” I still treasure that particular use of language.
Words can build worlds as well as characters. I don’t think anywhere but England could have produced “whinge,” which is either a whiny cringe or a cringing whine, depending on whom you ask. England also gave us “coddiwomple:” to travel purposely without a clear destination in mind. I’ve read that all of Greek philosophy rests on the Greek linguistic trick of turning an adjective into a noun by adding a definite article – i.e. “the good, the true, and the beautiful.” And recently a guest on a late-night talk show mentioned her favorite, archtypically German word – backpfeiffengesicht, literally “cheek-slap face.” It’s generally translated as “a face that cries out to be punched.” [Read more…]