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.