Characterization through Diction, or: You have to say “devious” deviously to join the Deviant Gang.

Any time philosophers and linguists start talking about the nature of language itself, things can get a little weird. One of the theories that I have heard of concerning this (that seriously warped my brain for a few weeks) is that we only have complex thought because we have language, and the language that we use heavily influences the way we think. I am not a philosopher and my understanding of the theory is tenuous at best, but there is something in the notion that certain words within a language can evoke certain types of thought. In primary school English class, this is evident in the differentiation of word meanings based on denotation, the word’s dictionary meaning, and connotation, the word’s meaning resulting from its use. This is also evident particularly in the political sphere where words become charged with meanings that have next to nothing to do with the dictionary definition. On a more personal note, groups of people who share similar beliefs and experiences tend to manufacture their own sort of language through memes and inside jokes. On a more individual note, certain people tend to fixate on certain types of words or phrases to the point that the people around them associate that word or phrase with that particular person. The question, then, is how to use this aspect of language as a writer.

For non-fiction writers, the answer to this question is easy: you speak the lingo your audience accepts and understands. If you are writing a memoir for an audience of engineers, then you need to use the language of engineers, not the language of social media. If you are writing a book about politics for the average American, then you should use the language of the average American (and probably steer clear of the language of political pundits). Did you notice that I said “pundit” there instead of “expert”, “guru”, “authority”, or “savant”? It is the most technically correct word for what I was describing, but think about how your reaction to the phrase “political pundit” would change if it was “political expert” or “political guru”. For me, “pundit” brings up connects to “pun”, a type of joke that is rarely done well, and “nitwit”, someone who isn’t very smart, so I always have a negative reaction when someone is referred to as a “pundit”, even if the people using the term view the person they are referring to highly. However, “expert” usually grabs my attention and respect because such a title is usually attached to someone who is highly experienced, qualified, and educated; they are a person whose opinion I can trust. Speaking the language of your audience (thereby removing any language barriers from your arguments) is how language will work best in your non-fiction piece.

For fiction writers, the answer is a whole lot more fun and a whole lot more complicated. Where the most difficult thing for non-fiction writers is getting their arguments accepted by their audience as fact, fiction writers are usually pressured by their audience and peers to make every sentence convincing and believable, to make their world and characters seem as real and relatable as possible. Obviously, it is also imperative for fiction writers to make a conscious effort to speak the language of their intended audience, but, if your audience is exceptionally large, there is only so much to be done on that front. (Audience size and specificity will primarily determine whether or not your characters use industry-specific jargon; avoid jargon when writing for a general audience, use jargon when writing for a small group of people within a particular industry. For example, if you are writing for game developers or professional gamers, then feel free to use phrases like “delta of chance” and “procedural generation”, but skip using them if you are writing for gamers in general.) The two best (and most exciting!) language tools for fiction writers, then, is the diction specific to each character, and the memes and inside jokes developed by character groups.

Characterization through diction works in three main ways. First, a specific character’s diction can convey that character’s life experience (age, profession, location, etc.). Second, a specific character’s diction can convey that character’s values (knowledge, romance, equality, money, etc.). Third, a specific character’s diction can convey their place in the story (protagonist, antagonist, good, bad, etc.).

Using diction to convey a character’s life experience requires a bit more research than creativity, but you can still favor certain facets while downplaying others. For example, if you are writing a character who is a retired engineer who grew up in a rural town in the 50s and currently lives in California, then you need to know what words old people, retired people, engineers, people who grew up in rural towns, people who grew up in the 50’s, and people who currently live in California use. Then, if you want to stress themes of nostalgia, you can favor the words people who grew up in the 50’s frequently use to characterize how your character reacts to things in the plot. This use definitely favors connotation, so it requires a bit of research to really leverage the meanings of the words you can use to add flavor to your story without changing the events within it.

Using diction to convey character values is a bit more creative, but does require a minimal amount of research in order to find all of the words you have available to you. For example, if you are writing a character who values money, then it is good to know all of the words used to describe money and to let your character use those words at appropriate moments in the story. Also, which words the character uses to describe money can also convey that character’s experience with it. If the character is an investment banker, then that character will probably call money “assets” or “capital”, but not “dough” or “scratch”. However, if the character is a mobster, then that character will probably call money “dough”, “scratch”, or “clams”, but not “almighty dollar” or “legal tender”. A political lobbyist would probably use “almighty dollar” and “legal tender”, though.

The final diction technique is my personal favorite; this is where imaginations really get to play. Using diction to hint at a character’s place within the story requires knowing the character and knowing how the character operates within the story. For example, a character that may start out as a friend to the main character can use words associated with betrayal in order to foreshadow what is coming to your readers. Then again, you can avoid using those words or use them sparingly in order to make the betrayal more shocking for your audience. My preferred method is to find the word I would most associate with a particular character, then find words that sound similar to that word and pepper those throughout that character’s speech. For example, if the character I am writing is defined by their disobedience, then that character would probably use words like “ambience”, “audience”, “science”, “patience”, “experience”, “lenience”, and “sapience” instead of words like “atmosphere”, “meeting”, “discipline”, “restraint”, “face”, “agreeable”, and “wisdom”. For this one, do what you think will work best.

The characterization of groups through memes and inside jokes is a bit more difficult since it poses a similar problem to the use of jargon; if your audience doesn’t get it, then they can be quickly alienated from the story. The best way to ensure that your audience gets the joke or the meme is to develop it within the story they are reading. Creating these memes and jokes is also more difficult than specific character diction because they are innately more complicated. In order to come up with memes and jokes that make sense, you have to get to why they would be used in such a way. For example, my group of friends is mainly composed of couples, but there are two people in the group who are single. This has created a bit of awkwardness, because the couples don’t want to make the single people feel uncomfortable for being single. As such, one person in the group (who was in a couple) started calling out whenever one of the couples was engaging in public displays of affection by saying “couples are gross”. Two things proceeded to happen: the group realized that this relieved the “couples” tension, and the irony resulting from someone in a couple saying it to another person in a couple was amusing. In your own stories, see where there is tension, or what things often come up within the group that can benefit from useful, and sometimes funny, shorthand. Then see if your characters’ responses to those issues can be adopted by the other characters without raising more issues. (People use language to make life easier, not harder. Whether or not the character is cognizant of whether any issues might arise is a different story.)

Hopefully, this article will help you add some extra character to your characters through how they use language! (On the topic of diction, the image at the beginning of this article is a word cloud created from this article. I find it fascinating to see what words I tend to use when trying to convey technique compared to the words I use when writing more creatively. Do you?)

Did it work for you? Do you have some new character ideas based on a certain collection of words that you would like to share? Did this help you figure out a difficult character? Do you have questions for me? Is there a topic that you want me to write about? Let me know in the comments section! I look forward to hearing from you!