I had an interesting comment from a reader of my novel Lifeform Three. She was curious that I’d described a horse’s coat as ‘fur’. Surely the more usual term, she said, is ‘hair’.
She’s not wrong.
‘This might worry readers,’ she went on, ‘who will think you don’t know one end of a horse from the other.’
We’ll return to that in a bit.
The writer’s deception
Fiction writers are, of course, the ultimate fakers. We write experiences we haven’t had. In places we haven’t been to, about people who never existed. And we must make it real. Readers want to believe. Even if they know we can’t have been alive in Victorian London. Or on a fantasy planet.
Vocabulary is one of our tools for this.
1 Vocabulary is occupation, profession
A bomb disposal expert has to sound like a bomb disposal expert. And not just in the way you describe the activities of their work, with technical language and insider shorthand. Their work will give them a life outlook too. Any occupation will add to a character’s slang vocabulary, and even their humour style. Think of medics and their distinctive black humour.
2 Vocabulary is culture and time
Vocabulary shows the culture of the book’s world – the way characters think, the way they behave with each other.
Fantasy authors are a good example. With every word choice, they’re casting the spell of the setting, letting us know we’re not in the everyday. If their world is quasi-medieval, they might choose terms with an archaic or courtly quality.
Historical fiction authors have an additional concern – they mustn’t introduce words or phrases that are inappropriate for the times.
This brings me to character attitudes. Attitudes come from the culture. In our own time, social attitudes change wildly within a decade. Put another way, each era has distinctive values that affect how characters behave to each other. A major bugbear of historical novelists – and readers – is character attitudes that are anachronistic, especially 21st century snark and rebellion. There’s nothing wrong with rebellion, but it must be a kind of rebellion that fits with the times. (Aside: if you want to put ‘bugbear’ in your historical novel, you’re good. It entered English in the 16th century, according to Merriam-Webster.)
3 Vocabulary is individual character
Language also shows character, especially in dialogue and first-person narration (and close third where we follow the character’s thoughts and feelings).
Characters will have different ways of thinking, which come from their education levels, their occupations (or lack of them) and their personalities.
Characters will have their own lexical signature. How they curse. What they say when impressed or upset. Even, how they say hello or goodbye. What they call their parents – Mum and Dad, Mom and Pop, Mummy and Daddy, Mater and Pater. Perhaps one parent is a warm word (Mum), the other is severe (Father). Perhaps they use first names. (There’s loads more about this in my characters book.)
Back to Lifeform Three. Of course – of COURSE – I know the correct term was hair, not fur. So why did I use such a weird word?
1 – Temporal setting – Lifeform Three is set in the future. Terms might have changed. My odd choice of word is a cue to the reader; take notice, this is not your time.
2 – Cultural shift – at the time of Lifeform Three, people don’t encounter horses very much. Or any animal. ‘Normal’ terms are created by communities. Dog owners of the 2020s know what to call everything because there is a long tradition and expertise. They talk to each other, read books, write blogs, go to vets, buy gear. All of that creates a shared vocabulary for talking about dogs. If no one does any of that, there is no shared vocabulary.
3 – Character – the narration is from the point of view of an artificial human, who has to invent his own terms for everything.
As I wrote that scene in Lifeform Three, I felt the term ‘hair’ would be wrong.
My perceptive reader noticed. Wondered why. Which is what I wanted.
And should readers be concerned about my grasp of horse lore? In a superb irony, the idea came from a weird comment by a riding instructor. ‘Ram your outside hand into the horse’s neck,’ she called, ‘right into the fur’.
‘Fur?’ I thought. ‘You always pick such peculiar words.’ Peculiar words were one of her tics, bless her.
Years later, about to type the word ‘hair’, I stopped and thought, is ‘hair’ the best word for this character, in this time? Would another word serve me better?
Sometimes, the strange word is the right word.
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