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Make POV Work for You: Character Vocabulary

Thursday, April 30, 2009

One of the best things we can do to take Point of View deeper is to start recognizing that each character is going to have his or her own unique internal vocabulary. This has two sides to it.

The first part of this equation is what level of language your character uses. If you’re writing a character who is college educated—or at least well enough read that they have the equivalent of a college education, which many people do—you’re going to use a higher level of vocabulary for your character’s viewpoint narrative than you would for a character who hasn’t had the benefit of higher education. So make sure that their narrative style matches their education level.

But it’s the second part that I want us to focus on today, and that’s the vocabulary that’s dictated by who your character is. In other words, in what unique way does your character view and label the world? Is she an introvert or extrovert? Optimist or pessimist? Cheerful or depressed? Realistic/logical or given to flights of fancy? What is his social background? What are the cultural/generational influences he grew up with?


Because a World War II veteran who helped liberate the concentration camp at Auschwitz is going to view things differently than a Gen-Xer who grew up in 1980s California. And by giving your POV characters unique internal vocabularies, you deepen the characterization and draw the reader further into your story.

Let’s see if I can illustrate the differences this way:

William turned to see who approached aft, and his breath caught. Julia Witherington was the very image of an Athenian statue—but not of cold white stone. Her gown looked as if it had been made of liquid bronze, hair done up with gold ribbon woven throughout the mass, while several mahogany curls bounced around her shoulders.

Regret lapped at his soul like waves against the hull of his ship. . . .

William’s focus strayed beyond the two couples ahead of him to the reddish-brown curls that skimmed Julia’s skin as she took the stairs on Admiral Glover’s arm. The curve of her shoulder up to the column of her neck reminded him of the refined lines of the bow of a Man-o’-War—

He trimmed sail and reversed course. Every time he was near this woman he devolved into a blithering idiot with no thought but her pleasing appearance in his head. Where was the famed Ransome discipline?

Meredith, stately and graceful, light hair set off to perfection by her brown velvet dress—like strawberries served with chocolate ganache—swept into the kitchen, drawing the attention of every man present. . . .

Meredith came over and leaned against the stainless-steel counter beside him. She even smelled vaguely of strawberries and chocolate . . . or maybe that was just his imagination.

Her nutmeg eyes flickered . . .

He wanted to apologize, to take back the knowledge he’d just thrust upon Meredith that her parents didn’t respect her authority and position. But once the soup was spilled, there was no getting it back into the pot. . . .

Just from these two selections, can you tell what each man does for a living? With William, in Ransome’s Honor, his internal vocabulary requires a lot of nautical terms, because not only has he been at sea since he was twelve years old, he grew up knowing he would be going to sea and studying to become an officer rather than have to take the route his father did—as a seaman who had to scratch and claw his way up through the ranks to finally become a warrant officer. Therefore, the language of the sea and of ships and all-things-nautical dominates his worldview.

Major, from Menu for Romance, is a chef. And though his entire life hasn’t been so singularly focused on his chosen career, it still dominates his thinking, because it’s what he loves—therefore we get the similes and metaphors that reference food items: strawberries and chocolate ganache, nutmeg, soup.

Aha—metaphor and simile. Surely we all remember those from elementary school language arts classes. Both are comparisons; a metaphor says that something is what it’s being compared to while a simile compares it using like or as. Now, while these are wonderful to create not just a sense of the world you’re building but to deepen POV, you want to be careful with how often you use them—too many and you overwhelm the reader.

        “When you write similes and metaphors, stay aware of your symbols and what you want them to mean. . . . Using the imagery of similes and metaphors and building the symbolic power of your descriptions adds artistic value and emotional power to your writing. They give you extra points in original style from the Eastern Bloc judge on the Olympic publishing team. . . .

        Start with similes. . . . stretch yourself further and write a full sentence or two that extends the comparison or image. . . . List five or ten ‘automatic’ or clichéd responses. Then list five to ten ‘fresh’ responses, digging for original and inventive language. . . . Feel free to exaggerate, to get silly, to go for comparisons that don’t quite hold up to literal scrutiny. . . .

        Stretch your imagination and your writing skill and gradually develop your literal and symbolic imagery for sounds, smells, taste, and touch. While a gifted few writers may experience a flow of similes, metaphors, and symbols as constant as Niagara Falls, know that the rest of us—I would wager 99 percent—work hard on enhancing our writing through many revisions.”
        ~Elizabeth Lyon, A Writer’s Guide to Fiction

Here’s an exercise to help you start thinking about your characters’ internal vocabularies:
Black as _________________________
Crazy as _________________________
Smelled like _______________________
Walked like _______________________
Eyes as blue as ______________________
He spent money like _______________________
Her heart pounded like _______________________

You can share your take on these, or, if you’d rather, share some similes and metaphors or examples of unique internal vocabulary you’ve given your characters.

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