Language Matters

I started out writing academic papers and articles, so when I turned from that type of writing to fiction, my sentences tended to be stilted and wordy, and I still have problems along that line from time to time. That’s why I turn to readers to review my work and sound the alarm when I’m using words or sentences that are too convoluted and use vocabulary that doesn’t fit the situation or the character.

I’m a real purist when it comes to grammar. I was raised to use correct grammar, have a thorough grounding in sentence structure and know how to parse sentences to be certain I’m using grammar correctly. As a kid I loved to diagram sentences! (Are kids even taught that any more?)

All that said, when I write, I have to consider the level of diction that my character would use. If I’m writing in the point of view of a character who uses casual speech and is careless about grammar, I need to reflect that in the character’s dialog and also to some extent in the narrative of the scene that is seen through that character’s eyes. And it’s the narrative part that gets tricky. I don’t want to “dumb down” the narrative, but neither can I use exalted language and phraseology that just would not fit the character. It’s a bit of tightrope walking, because over-simplification can turn off a reader, but so can the use of a lot of obscure words and overly poetic language in situations where that type of writing just doesn’t fit.

I hope this is something I’ve gotten better at as I write more. I know that my first novels had problems in this area. It helps me to read the work of other writers and see how they handle the vocabulary and phrasing in similar types of situations and characters as I’m using in my work.

Language usage is very different in a novel currently under production in which my protagonist is a well-educated young noblewoman in the mid 1700s and the story, written in first person, is told through her journal entries,  from the language in a novel I’m currently working on, also written in first person, in which the protagonist is a modern young woman with only a high school education and a flip, somewhat jaded attitude. The two novels require entirely different writing styles and different levels of vocabulary. Challenging but fun. Then there’s also the matter of language difference according to whether the point-of-view character is male or female.

I’d be intersted in hearing about how some of you handle language issues, and how you adapt language to character, time, place, ethnicity, and other variables. What problems have you encountered? Is this anything that presents a difficulty, or are you able to change styles easily when needed?

Let’s learn from each other!

About E. Rose Sabin

Fantasy and science fiction author.
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