Thursday, April 15, 2010

Language Barrier

Last Friday I went to get my driver's license renewed. Believing I was in deep doo-doo because it had expired on my birthday in January, I didn't even try to renew online. My penance was to appear in person at the DMV and subject myself to government bureaucracy at its finest.

I imagine that all driver's license spaces look alike. Regardless of the colors used, they all look gray. Tired tile floors, tired plastic chairs all lined up facing the same direction, and tired looking people behind a barrier type desk calling out numbers—their biggest goal to make it through another boring day.

In spite of the large posters admonishing that all cell phones were to be turned off, a couple of people were talking on theirs. And like most cell phone users, talking loudly. (I, for one, try to tone my voice down to where I can barely hear myself. So far, whoever I'm talking to doesn't seem to have a problem.)

One young man in particular was on his cell obviously talking to a friend about a young woman. He wore the kind of droopy-drawer jeans that make me want to laugh out loud. They remind me of a country bumpkin cartoon character I must've been exposed to as a kid. What I wouldn't give to see the guys who sport those things have to tear off in a run.

If Droopy Drawers didn't have at least one four-letter word in every sentence, I think he would've confused himself. He further powered down the words by only enunciating the first two letters. (Have you ever noticed that people who use profanity actually seem to have their vocabulary curtailed?)

I'm painting a one-dimensional character here, which we should all avoid. If I were writing him, I'd work to add dimension, assuming he was important to my plot. But the fact was, this character cussed. He tossed F-bombs and others to the wind like confetti. Tired, gray confetti, but confetti.

What I did at the DVM was move away. But what if I were writing him?

I would want to write him true, but not as boring as he became in real life. Real life dialogue is dull. One F-bomb would probably be sufficient to make that particular layer of his personality clear.

As a reader, I get jolted out of the story as much by ludicrous dialogue as I do by overly-intrusive dialogue. Someone who has a live grenade land at their feet does not say, "Gosh." Nor do they say "Darn it" when headlights from a semi-truck fill their windshield on a dark night.

What about you?

CR: Under the Dome by Stephen King.

It's all better with friends.


  1. By coincidence I'm reading King too: Lisey's Story. It's also a brilliant lesson on dealing with necessary profanity.

    My dialogue is pitiful. All my characters resemble the poor soul in Purcell's 'Cold Song'.

    Here's a link in case you're curious:


  2. I was dismayed to read a character today in a best-selling novel who spoke and acted in the most stock, predictable, cliche way. Having recently worked to create a character in similar circumstances myself, I was particularly dismayed at what I saw as "lazy writing".

    Perhaps it wasn't that, so my bad, I'm on sub and I'm ornery ;)

    Anyway, I guess what I'm saying is that Droopy Drawers with his eff words probably is a bit of a cliche--albeit real--and it's the writer's job to dig for what will make him a little surprising. To find the one detail that made this particular DD the tiniest bit different from what we would expect--something only you could see and bring to life on the page. Even if that detail is entirely made up.

    Does that make any sense? Hey, again, I'm on sub, and my head is a muddle...

  3. Ann, recognizing a weakness is the first step to getting rid of a weakness. When I first sat out to learn this craft, I often thought that certain issues didn't pertain to me. Then my little bubbles began popping and my eyes opened and . . . oh, my. I know now that every issue pertains to me at least to the extent that I can improve. There are several craft books that you might find helpful . . . one being SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Browne and King.

    Ornery Jenny . . . LOL. In my mind, DD had loved and lost and was struggling to allow himself to truly feel the pain. I'm waiting to hear some wonderful news from you regarding ms.

  4. When I finished my book and sent it to my editor, I was worried about some of the strong language in it. Never mind that these were grown men, some in law enforcement, and I'd already gone over the text fourteen times making sure that EVERY time profanity was used , it was called for and in character. I was raised a lady and I was worried.

    "Will they put my book in the library with words like that in it?" I lamented. My editor laughed.

    "You obviously haven't been reading much current fiction."

  5. I am totally uncomfortable with profanity and don't use it myself (in fact I don't even stay "gosh" or "gee". Strict upbringing!). Yet, every now and then one of my characters lets out a mild expletive, which comes across stronger because so rarely used. I'm uncomfortable every time I read it, but it is real and it doesn't seem right to delete it. The novel I have just started will include a younger set, and I'm a little concerned about what might come out of their mouths! I can only hope that it, too, will be more effective if rarely used.

  6. I get readers who complain about the language in some of my books. But I think maybe those readers were expecting a cozy (they're psychological suspense). Others have said that while they might not like the language, they recognized that it was in context with the characters who were using it. So I think a lot of it has to do with the expectation of the readers.

  7. What I think is interesting is how many readers think the author must use the same language their character's use. Mari, I think your attitude is a good one—making certain it isn't gratuitous.

    Pat, I'm impressed that you are standing through your lack of comfort when it fits a character to use a word you never would. I admit I use those words from time to time, and still think twice before writing them.

    I read a police procedural by a famous, best-selling author once that left me completely cold because there was simply too much foul language. I didn't say a word, but asked a friend of mine who's a former cop to read the book and let me know what he thought. He returned the book without finishing it because it was over the top with profanity. And he was a cop in Long Beach.

    Sheila, I'm looking forward to reading one of your books. I love psychological suspense, and promise I won't complain about the language your characters use. Great point about reader expectations.

  8. Thanks for the tip, Peg! I've actually got the book you mentioned and it's great! I've a whole bunch of books and at least one other I know you recommended here.