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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Your Character's Language

Five minutes after meeting a guy at my daughter's winter concert, he stopped the conversation and said, "Are you an engineer?"

I laughed out loud. "No, but I'm bilingual in Geek."

I explained that I was married to a Geek, and then, as it turned out, my Beloved Geek works for the same company as the gentleman to whom I was speaking. In five minutes of talking to a senior computer engineer about music theory, I'd matched my diction and conversation style to his, and he'd pegged me for an engineer.

Why is this important? Because within five minutes of reading about your main character, we should peg him or her for what he or she is, even if he or she never mentions it. This isn't "voice" in the current usage of the word, which refers more to the feeling generated in the reader by seamless, comfortable prose. Instead I'm talking about your characters speaking as themselves.

The advice we commonly hear is "write what you know," but most of the time we're not following that to the letter. Perhaps your main character is a hair stylist, and you yourself are not a hair stylist. How do you write this character convincingly?

First, you learn to speak like your character.

In the past, I've had to become bilingual not only in Geek but in Musician, Stutterer, Police Officer, Auto Mechanic, Priest, and NASCAR Driver. The languages aren't hard to master -- but that's deceptive because every subcategory of person is going to have its own lingo and its own frames of reference. In order to convincingly write these characters, you need to immerse yourself in the way people of that category speak.

And to raise the degree of difficulty, your character most likely doesn't fit into only one category: sometimes she may be speaking like a homicide detective, but at home she may be speaking like a bereaved mother, and maybe on Sundays she's speaking like an evangelical Christian. Meaning for the duration of the book, you her writer need to be trilingual.

The way to do that is not to string a bunch of cliches together. It's to learn to speak like your character; think like your character; frame reality like your character.

"But Jane," you're saying (because I can also speak Baffled Writer), "um, how?"

The trick isn't just researching the character's background and the information your character would know. You can pick up a book and learn how police investigate a murder or how a violinist tunes a violin. In order to hear how these characters speak, you need to do the following:

1) Talk to real-life people who do these jobs or fit these classifications

(You didn't need to read a weblog to know that, so we'll move on.)

2) Pick up magazines written for and read by individuals in these jobs or classifications. You'll combine facts with lingo this way and get a basic sense of usage. (At first you will be very, very confused. Just let it all wash over you. It'll begin to make sense soon enough.) Even the ads will tell you what the target audience wants, needs, and fears. 

3) Find a support group online where people of your character's description gather. And read. Read. Read. Read. Read everything you can find. Don't pay attention to who's posting and when. Absolutely do not post there yourself. But immerse yourself until you're breathing the same air your character breathes.

Online support groups are invaluable. When I researched stuttering, I googled it thinking I'd learn a couple of things, and five hours later, I had adopted a new mindset. The gift of speaking suddenly didn't seem all that natural any longer. It was a shock. It was amazing. I'd learned a dozen acronyms I'd never thought of (PWS, SLP...) and learned the most common pitfalls, problems, and issues. And how nasty people could be to those who stutter. My character improved a thousand percent.

When writing musicians, I visited violinist.com.  Support groups for violinists? Sure, why not? And the issues they wrote about weren't the issues I'd necessarily have assumed violinists face. I learned some of their prejudices, some of their pitfalls, some situations most violinists face, and their most common questions. I got to hear high-level players giving advice to newer players, and I learned from them. I learned how deeply some of them feel for their instruments.

Did I use the specifics? No, of course not. But did I get a sense of the emotional range among musicians? And did I leverage that to create my characters? You bet.

Similarly, blogs by people dealing with what your character deals with? They're a gold mine for capturing your character's mindset, lingo, language, and situations the character will find commonplace in his or her line of work.

4) Podcasts. Listening to someone talk off-the-cuff about his profession or self-categorization will give you everything you ever need to know about how your protagonist should speak. You'll hear the usage of their everyday terminology. You'll pick up not just the lingo but how it combines with their ordinary diction.

When you speak to someone directly about his profession, he'll tell you what he thinks about his profession. But when two professionals are talking with one another, they're going to be honest about the tough parts and the surprising parts. Mine this. It's gold.

Is reading or listening like this voyeuristic? In some senses yes. But it's all been posted in public by people who knew they were posting in public. So access it without guilt.

Moreover, when you're writing a character, you will want to do a good job portraying every single aspect of that character because of respect. Your characters deserve that much. When you truly respect a group or a profession, you want to show it as it is, and that means learning as much as possible about it. 

The internet gives you a window into the unpolished lives of every kind of person there is, every profession, every subcategory of human being. Leverage it to create the truest characters you can.


Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.


Tobi Summers said...

I've often worried whether my characters sound like the people they're supposed to be, but I'd never even thought about some of the things you mentioned, like reading online support groups and listening to podcasts. I can't begin to tell you how much this will help me because I know some of my weak spots are in this area.

Thanks so much for the suggestions!

Anonymous said...

The trick is to make them sound like real people, but more interesting than real people, lol. Although in my humble opinion, the 'based on a true story' are the best ones, but you know the writers add in a bunch of stuff:) It's our job to make stuff up!

Unknown said...

Thanks for this insightful, helpful blog, Jane. Very interesting. It's really neat when we get it right.

Kim Van Sickler said...

Great suggestions! I'm currently reading everything I can get my hands on about the hey day of the Ohio-Erie Canal for my current fictional WIP. It makes the writing soooo much slower, but hopefully will make it that much better.