Revealing Character Through Language

How does a writer reveal character in a story or novel? The usual answer is through action, speech, and then there’s also description. For these 3 elements, the writer uses various tools, of course, but the most basic are words, i.e. language. Last week, I talked about language in terms of word choice. I was also talking about the use of language to show who Pierre is when the reader meets him in the first Pierre chapter in Perceval’s Shadow. The excerpt I used was a descriptive passage showing Pierre in action as well as his thinking. This week, I want to explore that more and add the dimension of speech.

Back in 2008, I wrote a post about Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road, how the experience of that novel affected me and McCarthy’s use of Anglo-Saxon words. Through the use of ancient words, he took the reader back in time to a period in human history when survival was a primitive and violent endeavor. He created a tone, an atmosphere, to the story by using Anglo-Saxon words in his description.

In Perceval’s Secret, Vassily Bartyakov is a young Russian pianist who grabs experience and people with such gusto, it’s hard to not to like him. He’s far from an innocent in the world, but a realist. I wanted to convey primarily through his speech, however, his Russian soul.

Before I had written much, I spent a lot of time listening to Russian immigrants speaking English, watching how they used their hands as they spoke, and what about English tripped them up. I have to admit it was a lot of fun. In return, I was conversing with them, helping them with their English, explaining why weigh is not pronounced the same as conceive, and the differences among there, their, and they’re. The one element of English they tripped over all the time was the articles — the, a, an. They don’t exist in Russian, so Russians didn’t use them in English much. Another element was word order. In English, there is a definite order to a sentence. In Russian, word order depends on what meaning the speaker wishes to convey. For example, in English “I love you” is specific and set: subject, verb, object. But in Russian, those 3 words can be moved around to show emphasis and change the meaning — “You I love” or “Love I you” or “I you love” with the first word being the strongest. So for Bartyakov’s speech, I wanted to emphasize through word order and lack of articles that he was truly Russian, not an Austrian with a Russian name.

Another example of revealing character through speech concerns showing a character’s level of education by the kind of vocabulary she uses. A character who has a post-graduate education and is well-read will have a broader and deeper vocabulary (and be a true challenge for a writer) than a character who’s graduated high school and works at a blue collar job. Having written that, I have also met people in life with college educations who speak with the vocabulary and understanding of 5th graders. So education is not necessarily a reliable indication of intelligence. Writers demonstrate a character’s knowledge and understanding through actions as well as speech.

I love to watch fine actors at work. They reveal character by using their bodies through movement but also through clothing and grooming. The first example that pops into my mind is a description of a young woman in the 1950’s vs. a young woman today. In the 1950’s, a young woman might wear a shirtwaist dress, bobby socks, or pedal-pushers. What of a young woman today who describes her dress as a shirtwaist, her socks as “bobby socks,” or her cropped pants as pedal-pushers? What would that say about her? Fashion vocabulary changes often, morphs, and returns, but it can reveal how a character sees herself.

I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of how language or word choice reveals character in a story. It’s one of the things I’m conscious of when I’m reading novels — how does the writer use words to reveal character? Describe behavior or action? What words does the writer put in her characters’ mouths? While description of action or how a character responds to a location creates a definite image of a character in a reader’s mind, the character’s speech can support or demolish that image depending on how the writer chooses words to put in a character’s mouth.

Language

In On Writing, Stephen King comments that readers never ask writers language questions, i.e. how does a writer come up with the right language for a story? Or a character?  Dialogue? It’s hard work, actually. I’ve been thinking a lot about it this past week because my revision work on Perceval’s Shadow last weekend put the question of language in my face. It’s all about word choice, but that sounds much simpler than it is.

I worked last weekend on chapter 2, a Pierre chapter, i.e. a chapter told from third person point of view close in to a 10-year-old French boy who’s been living on the future war-torn Viennese streets. He loves Japanese anime, specifically the anime of Hayao Miyazaki in two of Miyazaki’s famous movies, Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle, especially the latter. This boy just started identifying himself in his mind as a friend of the Wizard Howl as well as the Warrior Ashitaka, I had no idea why, but I went with it. Pierre is also artistically gifted — he loves to draw and he loves architecture, so he’s visually oriented. I wanted to capture a sense of his mind, his personality, and explore more his love for Miyazaki.

This excerpt is from the first draft:

He strolled down an aisle of butcher stalls, one hand skimming the edge of the displays, eyeing the sausages, the gruff stall owners, and where the most shoppers had stopped: a stall on the left, four stalls ahead. He increased his pace. At the target stall, he darted between two rotund women and grabbed a pair of bratwurst with his left hand. One woman cuffed his head and the other reached to hold him, but he ducked and ran.

Photo Credit: Vanessa Rudloff

Not bad. But everything about this excerpt screams me writing description. I wanted to choose words that would be revealing of Pierre, not me. How does he see this outdoor market and the people around him? Is he afraid? Confident? Does he have a plan? His goal is to steal enough food to get him through another day. With these questions in mind, here’s what I came up with in the revision:

He strolled down an aisle of the butcher section, one hand skimming the edge of the displays, devouring the sausages with his eyes, keeping his distance from the gruff stall owners.  Most of the shoppers had stopped at a stall on the left, four stalls ahead.  He increased his pace.  The crowd around the stall would hide him while he snatched the meat.  All those Viennese women!  They became flustered when something extraordinary happened, like an invisible French boy stealing from right under their noses.  He grinned.  They probably saw the meat move up and fly through the air on its own.  Imagine!  Of course they would become flustered.  They could not explain what had happened.  The police would come and shake their giant heads at the women and their stories of meat flying through the air on its own.

At the target stall, he darted between two rotund women and grabbed a pair of bratwurst with his left hand.  One woman cuffed his head and the other reached to hold him, but he ducked and ran.  These women had tried to stop him.  How could they see him?

In this revision, I wanted to show him thinking more of being helped by the Wizard Howl, and Pierre immediately decided that Howl had made him invisible. I realized after I’d finished, that as a homeless boy, he felt invisible to most of the people around him. All the nice Viennese do not want to see him or other homeless boys, dirty and starving, collateral damage from the war. If they saw them, the Viennese would either feel helpless to do anything or uncomfortable and overwhelmed by the “problem” and want someone else to take care of it, i.e. the police or government.

Photo: der Standard/Robert Newald

In the second excerpt, I write much the same thing as in the first excerpt, but in the second it’s no longer me describing the action. By sinking into Pierre’s thoughts, the paragraph takes on the quality of Pierre’s personality. It begins by changing “eyeing the sausages” to “devouring the sausages with his eyes” and sinks deeper with the exclamation “All those Viennese women!” He imagines their reaction to meat rising through the air all on its own. He is psyching himself to make his move to steal the bratwurst. The language I’ve chosen reflects that and his narrow escape in the following paragraph.

This is an example of working with language, how language supports character and action, and how it sets the tone for the story. The words I chose reveal Pierre’s character. To accomplish this, I thought long and hard about who Pierre is, how he sees the world, how he sees himself in the world, and how he’s chosen to cope with his circumstances. I was satisfied with the result.

Just Published!

The Minnesota Orchestra has published an essay that I wrote about my first concert experience with the music of Gustav Mahler.

Check it out!

Photo by Moritz Naehr

How do you define Success?

Success. Everyone wants it. But what is it, really? I’m also curious to know if different countries define success differently based on their cultures. That curiosity arises from American society’s fixation on financial success as the only kind of success that counts. Writers need to figure out that writing for money can be a huge mistake, but it’s hard to ignore that it takes money to live, to pay the bills, obtain food, shelter, clothing. I’ve written about success before at this blog. In that post, I explored the idea of “commercial success.” Now I want to explore the notion of “success,” that is, success unencumbered by money.

Athletes can define success in two ways: when they win a competition, and when they attain their goals whether in training or in performance. Writers can learn from the example of athletes. Success is in how you define it, in other words, not how society defines it. Society will always define success in financial terms. For writers this means in sales. So let’s forget that and return to the athletes.

Photo by William Warby

Competition

Writers competing with other writers — do writers really do this? From my own experience and my voracious reading, I have a tendency to compare my writing to that of another writer’s. But I’m not thinking in terms of competition. I’m thinking in terms of noting what the other writer does well, doesn’t do well, and how I can learn from it. Competition exists, however, with writing contests. Every time you submit a story, a poem, a novel to a contest, your submission is in competition with all the other submissions. Do you submit writing to a lot of contests? I haven’t done this much in the past. Winning or placing well in a writing contest looks very good on your publication credits. Sometimes winning brings extremely favorable publicity, a bump in sales, or attention from agents and/or publishers. But is winning a competition success?

If you define it as success, then for you, it is. Maybe just entering a competition could be the success.

Attaining Goals

I set goals all the time — to do lists for housework chores, shopping lists, to do lists for business chores, setting a number of repetitions for an exercise (like sit-ups, for example) and setting a goal total to work toward.

In writing, wonderful possibilities exist for setting goals and then celebrating success by achieving them. For example, a daily word count. I used to do this when I was writing fulltime. My daily word count goal was 1000 words, or about 5 pages, double-spaced. When I reached my goal, I could either celebrate by stopping work for the day, or continue writing. My choice. But the success was there in writing those 1000 words.

I’ve set goals like this throughout my writing life. I set a goal to finish a short story by a certain date. I set a goal to start a short story on a particular day. I’ve set a goal to get off my butt and find a good editor when I began the production process to publish Perceval’s Secret. During the month of November, there’s a quite well-known activity called National Novel Writing Month when writers set the goal to write a novel first draft by November 30 (or December 1, if you want the entire day of November 30). If I were to participate, I’d be overwhelmed thinking about the entire month, so I’d probably break it down into a daily word count goal. Completing the month with a finished first draft is definitely success achieved!

Nowadays, my goals tend to be a bit different, so my definition of success is, too. If I manage to carve out 2 or 3 hours on a weekend to write fiction, or work on Perceval’s Shadow, I consider that a success. At the beginning of this year, I set a goal to finish the first revision by December 31. For a long time, it didn’t look like I’d come even close to achieving that goal. As time went on, I began to think in terms of chapters — my goal was to finish 17 chapters by December 31, then 15 chapters. Now it’s 12 chapters, or half the novel. I have 3 months to finish the revision of 12 chapters. So far, I’ve done 3 chapters. I am so slow!

Success According to You

Everyday, each of us has the opportunity to enjoy success, or even many successes. It depends on how we define success and if we’re willing to truly claim each success achieved.

Think about it. What will you do?

 

Dear Stephen King

My “Office”

As I’ve been working on the first revision of Perceval’s Shadow, I’ve been feeling inadequate, terrified, and drowning in a writing ocean in which I’d chosen to swim (why did I? I hate swimming). Thinking I could use encouragement and support, I decided to read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. This book had resided in my bookcase for years. I don’t read self-help books, and books on writing remind me of self-help books. But I’d read a favorable review years ago, and writer friends had spoken highly of it, so I’d bought the book and then left it in my bookcase where I could eye it and wonder what Stephen King could possibly have to say about writing.

Now I know. I finished reading it this morning, pleased that I felt so reassured in my own creative process as a result. Stephen King recommends Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and that alone convinced me that he knows far more than I’d expected about writing. It’s my Bible too. He also confesses to the same terror and feelings of inadequacy at times when facing what he’d written, and at the same time exulting in the joy he feels when he’s writing. I can relate. I am the happiest when I’m writing fiction.

I admit, I’m surprised by this book. But hadn’t you read any of his books? Yes. I read ‘Salem’s Lot the summer it came out in paperback. My brother had bought it and consumed it in one afternoon. We were living at our summer house on a lake as we did every summer, so visits to the city library happened once a week when my mother drove into town to buy groceries. I’d exhausted my pile of library books and was looking for something to read until the next library run when I found ‘Salem’s Lot on the sofa in front of the fireplace. So, I read it. I hated it. Hated it. I’m not a fan of vampires despite admiring Bram Stoker’s classic work. Because of that experience, I’ve stayed away from Stephen King’s books ever since.

It wasn’t snobbishness, either. I admired King’s chutzpah and his support of writing and writers. I loved that he chose to live in Maine. I just didn’t think his books were for me. I do not enjoy reading horror stories. Then I saw the movie The Shawshank Redemption and loved it. A friend mentioned that Stephen King had written the book on which it was based. No! Really? You mean Stephen King writes other kinds of books besides horror? But I still stayed away. It wasn’t until a friend recommended Mr. Mercedes that I decided to give King another try. I loved that book and have since also read Finders Keepers. And then I was quite surprised to learn that he’d written Hearts in Atlantis. Hmmmm.  I probably still won’t be reading his horror books, though.

In On Writing, King starts with a large autobiographical section to show the reader where he comes from as a writer. There were surprises: his alcoholism and drug addiction, for example, as well as some pithy description of his job in a laundry. And like me, he began writing early in his life. Like me, he feels happiest writing, as hard as the job can be at times. But unlike me, he enjoyed publication success early. In the second section, King explores writing and how to do it. This was the section that most reassured me because most of what he suggests and/or recommends are things that I already do and have done for years. I was surprised that he only does maybe 3 drafts of a piece, though. Really? Not sure I believe that. In the final, much shorter, section, King describes being hit by a van while out for a walk and the aftermath. I cried through most of this section. I know what it’s like to face major health issues, to be in a hospital, to have a long recuperation, to deal with massive physical pain. I am happy, however, that King returned to writing, specifically On Writing. It has energized me and made my imagination ecstatic.

Dear Stephen King, thank you.