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This is inspired by a few things that have been breaking my immersion when reading Worm.

The main protagonist is a teen, and most chapters are first-person POV, so grammatical casualness fits. I don't expect her to use subjunctive, and her use of "anyways" was (I thought) a great way to indicate that she was a high school sophomore.

But then authority figures ALSO used "anyways" in formal communication. No one uses subjunctive. There doesn't seem to be that slight code-switching tone difference with the "adults" when talking to each other at coffee vs sharing information in a meeting.

Is this just something to specifically proofread for, highlighting dialogue/thoughts by certain characters, and revising them all in a specific tone-swoop? How do you learn what elements help change that tone?

(I know if your character is a physicist, you have to look up enough physics to communicate the science effectively, but language use of a character pervades all their thoughts and dialogue, especially in workplace settings. One doesn't have to be an English major to have this code-switching behavior, or varying levels of formalism: mere exposure to higher-level readings (like academic journals) would have an effect.)

I don't intend to knock this author -- I've been reading his works for millions of words! And I know we're basically reading his first-drafts, due to his production choices. I just try to learn what catches my eye/ear as a reader, so I can change that in my own writing. (And yes, I have tone problems too -- often too casual for professional, but too formal for quick communications. And my writing is 100% middle-class white, so I know I'd need an editor of a different background to have better code-switching to show other types of family life, for example.)


Not a duplicate of Writing the dialogues of characters who are much smarter than you because that's about "pure" IQ, and my question is more about characters who would realistically have had more formal education than the author.

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    I added tone but I'm thinking now that voice may be a better choice (or perhaps they're both relevant). What do you think? – Cyn Apr 12 at 16:22
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    You think the diction breaks immersion in Worm? Wow, just wait until you run across all the plot points that turn on people never noticing bugs crawling all over them, or using spider silk to drag heavy objects as if it were as strong as as rope, or the ending, which alternates between utterly incoherent and utterly inconsistent with previously-established canon. Or better yet... don't wait until you read that far. There are plenty of better superhero stories you could be reading. – Mason Wheeler Apr 12 at 17:41
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    I'm a Worm fangirl. I totally adore We've Got Worm/Ward podcasts, and this is my 3rd time through Worm. I didn't really like Twig, though. Some things affect me because it's text -- like diction. I can ignore the bugs-everywhere, just like in Buffy I ignore that characters have NO peripheral vision -- or it happens to totally match the framing of the shot. The ending (mostly everything past the time skip) is just a gigantic fever-dream.. it's chaos, but I float with it in the moment. – April Apr 12 at 17:46
  • Bleh. Worm started out with a very interesting premise: girl gets superpowers, wants to be a hero, accidentally falls in with a group of villains, and has to pretend to be on their side while figuring out how to handle the situation. That would have been a really interesting story, if only we had gotten to see it! But when the first Endbringer attack happened, the author completely abandoned that story and instead replaced it with taking a big, long, extended dump all over everything that makes superheroes awesome, that just happened to feature the same main characters. – Mason Wheeler Apr 12 at 19:16
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    I like what I like. It's not about the "girl power," and I'm not especially into superheroes. I've noticed other diction issues (most often the lack of subjunctive) in other works, this just happened to be an example fresh in my mind. – April Apr 12 at 20:26
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Some thoughts, in no particular order:

1. Educated people may speak in a more casual way than their education enables (but uneducated people are unlikely to be able to speak coherently in a more educated tone)

It is more jarring for an uneducated bum to talk like a research scientist than for a research scientist to mumble, cuss, talk like a valley girl, etc. I know you're including specifically formal situations, but it bears pointing out.

2. What you don't say often communicates more than what you do say

You yourself pointed out that it was an included word that struck you as out of place.

I once wrote a story where I wanted a character to distinctly feel foreign; I made a rule that she couldn't use any words coined after 1600 (or post-1600 definitions of older words), unless it was the name for a specific object that another character introduced her to (like "car"). Of course, I also have experience reading poetry, and books across several genres, written in 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and grammar played a role - but vocabulary made a huge difference.

(I was surprised to find that most of the words I ended up using were NOT fancy or archaic-sounding. On the contrary, many old-fashioned-sounding words are artifacts of the 18th and 19th centuries.)

3. A well-educated person speaks more simply and directly

Plain speaking, without sub-culture-specific flourishes, just comes off as more concise and mature. Sadly, loading dialogue with unnecessarily complicated grammar or "look, I can use a thesaurus - badly" words WILL impress many an untrained ear. However, even to such an untrained ear, a straightforward, concise statement is preferable if your goal is to communicate information, and not just tag a character as "smart." And an author can show a character is smart by actually having the character say smart things!

Writing concisely can be difficult, though.

4. A widely read author has a deeper well to draw from

As hinted in point 1, if you yourself are educated - particularly from a wide variety of disciplines and levels of rigor - you will be more able to write like an educated person would speak. That is, an educated tone can't really be faked.

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    I really like #2. (This author I'm referring to did go to college and got a degree in something like symbolic linguistics? basically how language affects perception, like HumanComputerInterface, but with language instead of computers, if I recall. So I expect a relatively high level from him, but it may be his output outpaces input, so he's perhaps not reading much else with his billion-word schedule.) He does a good job of having a variety of women characters "sound" female, yet distinctive, it's just something jarred a little about authority not quite sounding right at times. – April Apr 12 at 15:28
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    "Writing concisely can be difficult, though." True, but the author has a huge advantage over their characters, namely that what the character comes up with at the spur of the moment, the author can spend minutes, hours or even longer contemplating to get just right to convey exactly what the author wants that one statement to convey; nothing more, nothing less. (As for the characters saying smart things, that's a good point, but I think there are few things more jarring than having a smart character say smart things and then go actually do dumb, er, not-smart things.) – a CVn Apr 12 at 19:46
  • @aCVn Yes, I find plot-driven stupidity quite frustrating. – Jedediah Apr 12 at 21:01
  • @aCVn It's fairly common in real life though. – sgf Apr 12 at 21:48
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    @aCVn Yes, and it'd be really nice if some of my smart friends would stop breaking character like this... Or putting things another way, there are real people who do this. It's easier for some to learn to talk smart than to learn to be smart. Though, I guess the lesson there is if one has characters like that, some of the actually smarter characters should be able to tell the difference. – Ed Grimm Apr 13 at 21:43
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Teachers and professors often pick up the lingo of their students; part of being a good teacher is being able to understand their speech and slang. Not only to communicate with them, but to pick up on things they shouldn't be saying.

I will also note that every generation, beginning around puberty to late college years, seems to invent some new slangs, specifically for the sociological function of creating distance between themselves and the older generation; by having, effectively, their own language only they understand. But kids seldom switch modes when adults are around and will use their 'code' in circumstances where the adults can deduce what it means. So an adult constantly around many kids, if they are paying attention, will pick up on the lingo, and may themselves slip into usage of it, sometimes as a joke with their peers, sometimes talking to kids, etc.

But in formal settings, I would not expect this; "regardless" is a substitute for "anyways", and most professors I know might say "anyway" in a formal setting (a meeting to discuss curriculum, perhaps) but never "anyways".

  • What makes you think kids use generational slang in adults' presence because they "aren't smart enough" not to, as opposed to just spending a lot of time within earshot? – Milo P Apr 12 at 20:26
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    @MiloP Yeah, that is probably mean. I removed it and rewrote for more clarity. – Amadeus Apr 12 at 20:33
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There are two areas that show different speech patterns - casual speech and professional speech.

In casual speech, difference between educated and non-educated people may be nonexistent. Speech patterns here would rather follow social groups - i.e. average teenagers would speak somewhat differently from graduate students and, again, differently from middle age professors. You can try to emulate "professor's speech". Professors are usually good public (and private) speakers, capable of explaining complex subjects in layman terms. It would be a misconception, however, to think that educated people often use "smart" words in casual conversation.

In professional speech, thing are becoming different. Not only many special words are being used, the very structure of sentences may become different. In order to successfully depict how doctors, lawyers, physicists etc. discuss professional matters between themselves, one has to do some research.

I also would like to mention that this problem ("more educated than the author") is separate from a similar "more smart than the author" problem.

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