As writers, we make a career out of words. We understand that a combination of certain words can transport our readers from their lounge room to a habitat on Mars. The right words can make us feel the emotions our characters are feeling. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve escaped into a novel feeling nothing. Putting that book down, especially mid-chapter, I discover I’m angry or sad or anxious, whatever the main character in that novel was feeling when I stopped reading. We all know it, words have power, which is why we need to take care when we choose our words.
I recently came across this graphic from Upworthy.
It struck a deep cord within me, both on a personal level and as an author. Growing up I had friends and family members with certain conditions, one of my dearest friends had Downs Syndrome. It is obvious to realise how I grew up with a serious distaste for the word “retarded”. As a psychology student, I came to dislike the way we bandy around words like “insane”, “crazy” and “psycho”. Finally, at thirteen, I read about Helen Keller and developed a deep loathing for the derogatory use of the “dumb”.
Most (decent) people strive for the politest form of speech. When we find out a certain word has negative connotations, we try to avoid using it. The types of words we use, help us tell the world what type of person we are, where we fit into societies jigsaw puzzle.
Using words to create a character
This graphic, and the resulting train of thought lead me to think more about the “voice” of a character, and how important it is to get that voice right.
If you have a character that is an uneducated, rude, offensive jerk, they aren’t going to care about being politically correct or avoid using foul or offensive language. These people would use words from the above graphics “Not That!” column with impunity.
“What are you, a god damn retard?”
If your character is compassionate, kind-hearted, and gentle, they may avoid calling someone “moody”. In fact, you may want to read “None violent communication” by Marshall Rosenberg, to improve your understanding further.
“Perhaps he’s having a difficult day and it’s making him lash out at others.”
I repeat, words have power. When you begin to create a character, when you think about their job, their hair colour and personality, pay particular attention to what comes of their mouth. If you write in first person, make sure you retain that voice throughout the novel. Use words they would use. Sentence structure is also important. They speak in short, snappy phrases, or long-winded, that sort of thing.
It never hurts to rewrite a sentence a dozen times until you nail that voice. Little things matter. Do they say “yes”, “yep”, or “yeah”, maybe they say “ah ha” or simply raise their eyebrows and nod.