For writers, words make the Earth spin round. We can battle extraterrestrial invaders or colonize a new galaxy all with the power of our language. We use words every day, and yet we still want to blast them with a death ray when they refuse to obey. Today it’s all about the words and the struggle to contain the passive and rejuvenate the boring.
Since I’ve written a number of posts on developing historical fiction vocabularies, this post is more generalized.
3 Tips for Vocabulary
Use vocabulary as character markers and to develop relationships. Language helps create personalities. Everyone has spoken traits or quirks, and as writers we can use a few idiosyncratic words to make each character more memorable. I try to give the key characters a signature word or phrase. This helps keep dialogue clear without excessive tags. Creating a nickname can also make a character more memorable or create tension between characters. It’s not a coincidence that Han Solo always calls Leia princess, highness or your worshipfulness.
Vocabulary choices with or without author intention, will mark a character’s age and social status. If a character uses longer words and a more varied vocabulary, the reader will perceive them as educated and/or older. If a child talks the same way, they might come off as fake (or as a prodigy). Foreign words can also help differentiate characters. Just be very careful about this technique. Recently I read a book where only one character spoke with a peppering of French words. When the same words showed up in the mouth of another character, it pulled me right out of the story and sent me flipping back and forth looking for clarity.
Picking memorable words: a curse or a blessing? When you use a distinctive word, you are rolling the dice. Some readers will appreciate your ingenuity; while others will hate you for making them look up a word. Think about your ideal reader. If you’re writing a smart political thriller, using advance vocabulary gives a feeling of credibility. You can also get away with a distinctive or archaic word if you want to make the character sound strange or dated.
2 Examples for Vocabulary
I know some writers who don’t read the classics, but they are a great place to build your vocabulary. I don’t think you can go wrong with Edith Wharton. Three Pulitzer nominations are hard to beat. If you can’t manage one of her novels, try her short stories.
Short stories in general are a good bet. If you get a collection of them, you can use it to focus on how each writer’s vocabulary selections help shape the tone of the stories. You might like one of these easy to read classics:
Turn of the Screw by Henry James
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
The Telltale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
1 Link for more help
If you still need more help, try this post on 5 simple ways to improve your vocabulary from Write It Sideways.
15 thoughts on “V is for Vocabulary”
Love this! I had not thought about ‘talking’ vocabulary in my writing. I think I understood it needed to happen but not about how it would make characters sound. I really liked the example of someone using longer words and how a young child using the same vocabulary could be a problem! I love learning! Thank you
Poetry is another venue for unusual vocabulary–with fewer words, they must be highly specific, and in poetry the sound and rhythm is especially important.
You’re right, and I did mention plays and poetry in my last post on vocabulary, however this post ran so long. I cut about two hundred words and poems went with them. : (
My current WIP I get a little excited with some of the vocabulary my characters are using. They are words that characters in my young adult might not.
You have to stay true to yourself and your characters. I write literary YA with a standard readability score that is off the charts, but I know a number of writers who stick with about an 8th Grade Flesch-Kincaid score. Having a lower score will help you find a larger pool of readers. An important consideration. But I still think every writer should find the level that works best for their story and go with that.
Yes. “Language helps create personalities.” So true.
I recently read a post about using big words and annoying your readers so I’ve been thinking about vocabulary lately. This —> “When you use a distinctive word, you are rolling the dice. Some readers will appreciate your ingenuity; while others will hate you for making them look up a word.” As a reader, I appreciate when an author uses his or her true voice regardless of whether that includes larger words. If that is how they and/or their character speaks, that is how they speak.
I think every writer should know the risks associated with vocabulary picks and do whatever works best them and their story. I write historical fiction with any number of words (on every page) someone who never reads historical fiction would need to look up. But I just assume that reader is not my demographic and move ahead without too much concern.
Hi – I’m actually thinking of adding a new vocabulary word for myself every day or week. I was encouraged to when I was young, but you know how young people are …. they don’t listen. 🙂
FictionZeal – Impartial, Straighforward Fiction Book Reviews
You can’t go wrong with adding to your vocabulary.
Totally agree! I started keeping a list of “Purple Prose” words (tongue-in-cheek there) while reading all of Edgar Allan Poe’s works a couple of years ago, and now catalog them consistently as I read classics (because that’s usually where I find them). They’re a great way to distinguish characters, as long as it sounds natural!
I read a lot of classics and I keep word lists too. They’re a perfect way to rediscover words by era. But you’re right, it must fit the character and sound natural.
Vocabulary can be a fun way to play with characters. It’s so obvious to say that vocabulary is important to our writing but it’s good to voice it. It gives the writer a chance to set a tone, a time period, a social status, relationships between characters, and so much more…all building blocks of our writing.
I makes a huge difference when the writer pays attention to word choices. I hate reading books with dated slang coming out of the mouth of a teen character or reading about a physicist character that argues like a third grader. Unless they are a third grader. : )
Just cruising by the A to Z challenge. Interesting post. An excellent point on thinking of your target audience when choosing vocabulary. Thanks.
I don’t think I’ve hit your blog yet, but I’ll head over and do some reading when I start making my rounds in a few hours. A to Z sure is a fantastic way to sample blogs. I’ve discovered several I’ll be following long after the challenge is over. Thanks for stopping by.