Word choice is an easy way of making distinctive character voices. In real life, different people have different sets of words that they draw from. Some people use a lot of high-level academic jargon. Others throw around a lot of slang. Some people are poetic, and some people are crude.
A person’s vocabulary speaks volumes about who they are and where they came from. If all of your characters speak with the same voice, they begin to blend together for the reader because they sound like the same person. This is especially true for works with multiple first-person narrators. Meanwhile, creating distinctive voices for your characters helps you establish their backgrounds without interrupting the story with exposition. Paying attention to word choice makes your writing more efficient because it lets you say two things about your character at once (that is, we get both what they say and how they choose to say it).
Some things that affect word choice:
- How educated is your character? Characters with a higher level of education—whether formal or self-taught—are more likely to use elevated language, longer words, and more complex sentence structures. They’re also more likely to use these things correctly.
What does your character know about? What do they do for a living? Education tends to be focused. There’s no guarantee that a world class Shakespearean scholar will be know the first thing about sailing jargon. Meanwhile, it’s rather suspicious if a seasoned sailor is pointing around the ship talking about doohickeys and thingamabobs.
- Where does the character live? People in different places use the different words to describe the same things. This allows you to use the characters and dialogue to subtly clue the reader in to the location. It’s also a great way to establish locations if you’re dealing with a lot of world-building, and to give your neighborhoods/cities/countries a bit of flavor.
- What’s the time period? Time is another part of setting. It’s strange to see people in historical settings throwing around modern slang or using words that don’t exist yet.
- Who is the character talking to? Most people tend to alter their speech a bit when addressing their boss or hanging out with their friends.
- Who is the character? Some people naturally gravitate towards mild language. Some people like it rough. Some know a word but choose not to use it. Some don’t know a word but use it anyways.Word choice is a choice. Personality has a lot to do with it.
A note: What happens when a character’s word choice intentionally clashes with who they claim to be? Subtext.
Another note: Your characters should never use a word that you do not have a firm grasp of. If you are not 100% certain of what it means, how it’s spelled, what part of speech it is, and that it is appropriate to the time period, you’re going to look silly. Even if you mean for the character to get it wrong, you must know how to use a word in order to misuse it. This goes for slang and dictionary words alike.
Accents and Dialects
Unless you’re intimately familiar with the accent that you’re writing, the safest thing is to leave well enough alone. Lots of Americans know what a British accent sounds like, but most of us sound like dying animals when we try to speak with them. The same goes for writing. Knowing what it sounds like and knowing how to accurately portray it are two very different things. Writing accents also raises the question of whose pronunciation warrants altered spelling and whose doesn’t even though, technically speaking, everyone has an accent. This can easily turn into a way of casting a particular group as outsiders, or implying that their pronunciation is incorrect.
An alternative to writing accents is simply to note what the character’s speech sounds like in the narration. This tells readers everything they need to know.
The need for familiarity counts double for any variety of English that deviates from Standard American English (SAE). Dialects follow their own consistent grammatical rules. Ignoring these rules suggests that the dialect is simply an incorrect version of SAE, which is highly problematic (not to mention untrue). Especially when dealing with radicalized rather than regional dialects. In some cases–notably African American Vernacular English–misrepresentation can range from having unfortunate implications to being outright racist. For the sake of everyone, please do not write dialects you do not have a solid grasp of.
There’s a great article about accents, dialects, and the like here.
You can say whatever you want in your story. There are no words that are strictly off limits. But that does not mean readers will necessarily agree with, enjoy, or be comfortable with your language. Freedom from speech is not freedom from consequence. Think about why you want coarse language, and what effect you want it to have on your story. Also think about your audience and what kind of language they’re likely to be comfortable with. There are some things you can say in erotica that you can’t say in YA.
Consider the word’s placement. Who’s saying the word in question? As with most things, there is a big difference between a character using a gross anatomical term (which suggests that the character is a creep) and having a third person narrator say the same thing (which suggests that the author is a creep). If a character uses offensive language, there’s also the question of how others react and how sympathetic that character is made out to be.
Remember that strong language doesn’t always mean strong dialogue. Using “fuck” as a punctuation mark changes the flavor of the sentence, but it’s not going to fix weak dialogue and it often leaves the core meaning of the sentence the same. If your dialogue isn’t strong without vulgarity, adding vulgarity won’t make it any less awkward/on the nose/generally lackluster.
A note on slurs: Slurs are more delicate than regular coarse language because they tend to have a lot of cultural baggage, and to play a role in upholding social power structures. As such, they carry a huge risk of alienating readers, and of having problematic implications. They can be used, but they change the torque of your work significantly. Consider who is saying them, how often, and what impact you hope that they will have on the text.How do you want the reader to react, and why must it be this particular word? Earlier in this article I mentioned that you should understand whatever words you use. This is especially true of slurs. If you’re going to use them in your work, know what you’re saying and how it will be interpreted. Also understand that regardless of your intent, there are people who support the total eradication of certain slurs and that some find the mere appearance of the word oppressive.