Tuesday, March 27, 2012

March Madness: All the Little Things

Even the tiny things can reveal SOOO much.

The tiniest things reveal nuances about your character. These nuances make your character unique. These are the small things that your readers may never, ever in a million years realize you're doing. The simple way your character swears in their head or out loud. Do they say "God" in situations of stress or brilliance? Are they saying it because they were raised in a religious household and their first reaction is to begin praying? Or, the other end of the spectrum, they use "Oh God" as a blasphemous swear because they weren't raised in a religious household? Or does your character use it because she's a teen and that's what teens do (in which case, she's crossing dangerous territory into normal rather than being "normal")? Or are you being a lazy writer and didn't realize that you use it as a filler, empty calories, wasted space that could otherwise be put to great use?

For example, consider the below passage:
The boy before her was the most beautiful hunk of man meat she'd ever lay eyes on. My God, she thought, as her eyes traced his broad shoulders, and settled on those heavy brows over intelligent green eyes.
Ignore the man meat--if you can--and the ridiculousness of this passage (felt like writing a bit of romance rather than YA like I normally do for examples. Go with it). Okay, we get that she's a lusty woman and the "Oh God" is as much a physical response as her brain stuttering. But consider:
The boy before her was the most beautiful hunk of man meat she'd ever lay eyes on. Good Cosmo Lords, please save my loins from what I might do. Her eyes traced his broad shoulders, and settled on those heavy brows over intelligent green eyes.
And immediately, you know who the woman is, and that she's not just a silent observer--she's a woman of action and Christian Gods have absolutely no place in her life. Or bedroom.

Language shapes your characters, setting, world, absolutely everything about your writing. Consider John Green, any of his works. You won't find a single misused word. Any swear words are carefully thought out and, in the case of An Abundance of Katharines, use Frack instead of F*ck. Because they're nerds and it's awesome.

You notice that I'm talking contemporary novels rather than SciFi, Fantasy, etc. That's because I didn't want to get hung up on the intense world building that goes into those genres. But it needs to be stated. Loudly. Your special worlds need special vocab. It can be simple as substituting a swear like "Oh God" for "Oh Gods" or "Oh Goddesses" or getting really specific and going for "Good Leopold and all names of good that spring forth from your fingers", Leopold being a king or god or creator of the universe. Or heck, an artist the main character admires greatly.

I don't think The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson gets enough attention, so I'll direct your attention to a single character who really is rather minor. But memorable. Each time he mentions the King, whom the band of rebels on the fringes of the kingdom are ultimately protecting against invaders without his knowledge, he references great deeds, offspring, and usually compliments his loins. He includes it in his speech as easily as breathing, as a substitute for "In the name of King George" sort of thing. (I apologize, I cannot remember the character's name--my copy is lent out at the moment.)

Which gets us into characters. If your main character is a good Catholic girl, she probably isn't going to swear. Maybe she'll say a quick prayer or involuntarily reach for her rosary or cross her heart. Your love interest is a badass biker boy who uses creative swears because he grew up with a senile grandfather who never had an end of them (most are about fifty years out of date as well). The best friend character often switches to chat speak so she can say more in a shorter period of time. The brother character speaks in short, slow, to the point statements because he is a man of few words (cliche of course, but all us girls have a soft spot for the caveman).

I'm mainly talking about swearing, aren't I? It's one of the most telling aspects of voice and dialogue. But it extends, as I briefly touched on with the best friend characters in the example above, to speech, mannerisms, how a character processes information before doing something with it.

My advice, as always, is to read and pick apart a successful novel, or one that you admire. Watch movies even (not all, of course, they're not all equally successful in this). Star Wars you have people who believe in the force using "May the force be with you" (and that great scene in A New Hope when Han tells it to Luke for the first time, imparting so much respect into that simple line) and Yoda of course with his awesome speech patterns, and so many little things like Leia telling Han she'd rather kiss a Wookie (as opposed to a dog or pig on Earth).

And pay attention to your own characters. What do they do in times of stress? What do they do during their Eureka moments? How do you, the narrator (whether in first or third person) convey that to us, the reader? Is there anything you can do to be more successful?

The danger is, if you continue to use your stalk phrases (as original as stock photos), your work is going to be passed over as a pale imitation of greater genius. In contemporary, your characters will come off unoriginal and bland. In SciFi and Fantasy, I won't believe your world building, and even question if your setting is in fact another world, rather than dystopian or a weak version of Earth's medieval era.

Remember, it's the little things that count.

The key word is "little things." Don't overuse them. Don't make them blatantly obvious. Weave these things into your story so well that the reader won't know what's happening until they get to the last page and scream "Merlin's pants!"

Happy writing!


Jonathan Dalar said...

I'm instantly reminded of the great way Joss Whedon did this in Firefly. He wove his own futuristic idioms and cursing in with Chinese to give us something very real and believable.

Now that was some goram awesome writing!

Kayeleen Hamblin said...

I immediately thought of Battlestar Galactica with their unique verbiage. Or Beth Revis' Across the Universe. You know something about the characters from the words they use. Or don't use. Good reminder!

Carrie Butler said...

Hah! I was going to mention Firefly, too. :)

Taryn said...

Ewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww that picture will scar me for life.

Um, I feel bad now. Because the "god"s in B2B are definitely "BECAUSE SHE'S A TEEN, GOD." But other MSs have much more thought-out idioms.

A.J. Cattapan said...

Love the Star Wars cartoon! Can't beat jokes about Wookies. :)

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

Is that anything like stalk car racing?

Sarah Grimm said...

I LOVE the part in ESB where Han tells Luke "the force be with you". I also love when Leia says she'd just as soon kiss a Wookiee, but when she calls Han a Nerf Herder you can totally tell she's fallen for him. :)

I remember spending some time developing swearing for my fantasy characters. One in particular swears more often than necessary. But most of it is in his head. And he's just as liable to say "snare me" as he is to say the more foul, "knife my heart". But he reserves the mother of all swears for . . . actually he never says it, it's my sparse-swearer who utters that one, and I don't blame him.

Melanie said...

This was a great post, Vickie (as are all your posts) and so, so important.

This was something I tried very hard to pay attention to in my most recent novel and it was very tricky at times. Thank goodness for my reliable beta readers who were able to point out a few areas where modern language/expressions managed to slip itself into my story. I spent days just thinking about the language my characters would use and going through my mani to make sure it was consistent. It was especially difficult because while my story takes place in the future, (actually two sort of futures--hard to explain here) the MC and her people have been living in underground caves for almost a centruy and so while things will be different because it is the future, they also aren't in a way because they haven't advanced much socially (in fact they've regressed a bit) or technologically. I had to think long and hard about how much language might change/advance and what kinds of things will continue to be passed on from generation to generation regardless of the setting. Tricky stuff, but it has been an amazing learning experience to venture into.

Oh, and that picture...I nearly spewed clementine pulp on my screen. I have to ask...did that pic inspire your topic idea or was it topic first and then the perfect pic? haha

Cortney Pearson said...

This is such an interesting post, and it came at the perfect time for me too! I'm trying to buckle down and really get nitty gritty with my characters and WHO they are. This is another aspect I need to tackle!! And that hippo--hilarious!!! :D

Mary Weber said...

Oh good heavens, I love so many things about this post. :0) Firstly, that hippo…it’s just…yeah. My eye sockets are burning. Secondly? “Good Cosmo Lords, please save my loins from what I might do”??? Hahaha!!! I’m so tempted to incorporate that into my next ms (don’t worry; you can have full credit). And oh the name “Leopold” *sigh* (only…can he be a lusty, evil wraith? ahem). And the good Catholic girl example. Yes.

Reading through this reminds me again (as if I’d forgotten) why you are JUST SO DANG GOOD at your job. Enough said.

Stacy Bennett said...

As a fantasy writer, I have to make a special run through (with purple highliter) to find all those things that don't jive with the world I'm writing about... so you are so right on the money with this one.

And before you folks diss the hippo, remember. Hippos need love too!

Anonymous said...

I'm definitely finding it a challenge with my fantasy WIP to keep anachronistic language out without forcing in old-fashioned speech that could annoy/distract the reader.

I also hate it when made up words and phrases are there for no reason other than to be different. I don't want to notice them. Too often the names and phrases put in for flavor and world-building seem forced to me, as a reader.

Also, I cringed at "or a weak version of Earth's medieval era." My WIP is set in a pseudo-medieval world, because honestly it's about the characters, and I wanted a setting that would support the story without becoming too prominent itself. I hope it won't lose points with agents because of the setting not being 'new.' And now I am getting away from the topic at hand, so I'll stop :)

Susan Fields said...

This made me think of the creative swear words James Dashner uses in The Maze Runner trilogy. I read those books out loud to my kids. At first the kids found the made up words kind of funny, but by the end they just seemed natural.

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite examples is from Karen Marie Moning's Fever series. Her MacKayla Lane is a Georgia peach whose momma taught her not to swear so she and her sister had code swear words that she can't shake off even after growing up. I love her heartfelt "Kiss my petunia!"

Mart Ramirez said...

ROTFL what a great pic of the hippo!

One size fits all, eh? I will never see an itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini the same again. Ever.

I always try to add idioms and mannerisms but I think with this image forever seared in my memory, I will never forget. Thank you very much. :)

Fun post! Good reminder.

Anonymous said...

I loved that priest character in THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS! He made me laugh aloud several times. A little comic relief from a serious character.