Use Subtleties of Language to Reveal Character

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dialogue

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Carrie De Simas

Editor in Chief @ GoneWithTheWord

Perhaps Shakespeare should have said “What’s in a Word?” but then he knew the power of language and how a subtle change of word choice or position could imbue the dialogue with a deeper meaning or double-entendre. 

Dialogue is perhaps the most important literary device in the writer’s arsenal because it works to further all the other elements including plot, tension, and character development.

But how can one word change everything? Watch and see how swapping one word for another can change the implied meaning of the phrase, and reveal character at the same time. Since the examples use synonyms, it might seem surprising how much is revealed about the speaker through such a subtle language change. 

  1. “You are so dumb.”
  2. “You are so uneducated.”  
  3. “You are ill educated.”  

Whichever of the three examples best depicts how your character would normally speak can show his level of education, background and socioeconomic class without you having to tell the reader.

For example, if the character normally would use a word like dumb, then it would seem to show an air of highfalutin snobbery that could be meant to mock someone who is inclined to use phrases like ‘ill educated’. The subtle language shift could also be representative of the character pretending to be something they are not—like the dialogue equivalent of wearing high heels when they are really Birkenstock wearers.

On the other hand, if the character is normally the type of person who would use a phrase like ‘ill educated’ but instead snaps out with the word ‘dumb’ then this can be used to show the character’s backstory. Perhaps their life started in poverty or less educated roots and they adopted the highfalutin language style to blend, which shows an embarrassment about those roots, and a desire to be perceived and accepted by different social circles.

Also, the inclusion or exclusion of the word ‘so’ in the above examples is also telling. People who use qualifiers like so, very, extremely, etc., are already displaying insecurity about the strength of the word they are using. It’s a kind of over-dramatization. For example, which is the stronger descriptor of a sports car:

  1. The car is very fast!
  2. The car is lightening!

The folks at Disney didn’t name their protagonist Very Fast McQueen. They named him Lightening McQueen. Not only is lightening a stronger descriptor, it has the double-duty (and thus double-power) of being visual which is what all great writing should strive to be. 

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