In the comments on a recent Editor’s Clinic, the question came up as to when you should treat a language colloquially – contractions, a relaxed, familiar syntax — and when you should use a bit of formality to create a sense of otherness. The example then was of a conversation between two characters living a few millennia ago in Ancient Sumeria, speaking a language that developed before writing was invented. And this morning’s example goes even further afield, with creatures made of dark matter who communicate primarily through the exchange of pheromones.
As with most writing matters, there are no rules about when formality is appropriate. But there are a couple of general principles. The further your characters are from the modern world, the easier it is to have them talk colloquially. Readers know roughly how people from modern-day Germany or nineteenth-century England should sound, and if your characters sound different, then your readers will feel something is off. They are less sure of how people spoke a couple millennia ago. And when your characters are living in another dimension, then anything goes.
You also need to choose a balance between how familiar you want your characters to sound and how foreign you want your world to feel. In the Sumerian example, the characters had known each other for years and were speaking in an informal context. Keeping the language colloquial helped reinforce the everyday nature of the conversation. If you’re more interested in creating a sense of otherness – that you characters don’t quite think the way modern people do – then you can be more free to play games with the language.
This morning’s sample offers another intriguing use of looseness of language to create character. Oort, the dark-matter narrator, has grown close to his human subjects. The elders questioning him have not. Making Oort’s language more relaxed leads readers to feel closer to him and reinforces the sense that he’s thinking differently from his fellow creatures. Especially when he starts humming hits by the fifties pop icon, Bobby Darin. To push this contrast even further, I’ve loosed up his dialogue even more, adding contractions and relaxing the language.