Monday, September 22, 2008

Expressions of Strong Emotion

One of the things writers need to decide when creating characters is how they will express strong emotion.

Will it be a surface description?
"Frothmeister beheld the damage, and cursed."

Or will it be explicit?
"Frothmeister beheld the damage, and said (insert phrase of choice)."

If explicit, will it be some oft-heard phrase, or will the author take the delicious opportunity to be creative in a manner that reflects that particular character?
"Frothmeister beheld the damage, and bellowed 'Seeping slough of a half-giraffe, I'll thwortle those gronzites till they float!"

Sci-fi and fantasy writers have greater than usual opportunties for this sort of thing due to alternate world- and races- building that is part of their genre. The trick is for the reader to be able to figure out what is meant by a totally new-to-them word, via clues of context and personaltiy. In Ann Aguirre's GRIMSPACE, the characters eschew the regular version in favour of a different F-word: "Frack." There was a whole lot of fracking going on.

This was fine since it was clear from the first what was meant and why the characters felt it was called for. What threw Apprentice Writer out of the story was the sudden insertion of a conventional f-bomb. Why this change? Was it a typo? Was it an intentional contrast to the previous expression, for some purpose Apprentice Writer couldn't fathom from the text? Whatever the reason, the inconsistency brought the pace of the story to a crashing halt for this reader.

Then there is the opportunity provided by characters who have special interest in language. Daphne, the heroine of Loretta Chase's MR. IMPOSSIBLE, is a brilliant linguist, fluent in living and dead languages. And what is the expression of choice for this vocabulary-gifted character? "Good grief." A surprisingly conventional choice. Perhaps, intended to reflect Daphne's restricted nineteenth century social position.

In Sherry Thomas' PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS, the heroine has a larger-than-life personality and does nothing in half measures. Her expression of choice is "Crumbs!", which amused Apprentice Writer very much as it made perfect sense that the tiny, broken bits of dust leftover from anything would be regarded negatively from her tycoon, big-picture perspective. It made perfect sense for her character.

Then we come to Apprentice Writer's current #1 favorite expression of strong emotion, taken from Joanna Bournes' MY LORD AND SPYMASTER, in which a hardened old spy learns of something surprising and responds,

"God's avenging chickens!"

Apprentice Writer defies any reader not to laugh. This is the second of Ms. Bournes' "Spy" books; the same character made a divine fowl reference in the first one too, but AW was so intent on blazing through the most excellent story that she didn't take the time to write it down. One can only hope that there will be a new and wonderful chicken expression in each of Ms. Bourne's books to come.

Gentle Reader, what unusual expressions have you come across?


Julia Smith said...

I think I'm rather like you in the 'blazing through the most excellent story' scenario. I never manage to write down exceptional phrases I come across when I'm in the middle of a fabulous book. I always did like 'by Aslan's mane' in the Narnia books.

Ciara said...

I was always partial to "Corpus Bones!" or "God's Thumbs!" from CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY by Karen Cushman. The heroine spends the book devising an appropriate curse word and tries out quite a few amusing ones.

I heart Joanna Bourne. The woman is bloody brilliant.

When I finished my WIP and gave it to my critique partner, her feedback was "it has too many swear words in it." I thought, "It has swear words?" A ms word find tool showed me that yes, indeed, I used "bloody" "hell" and "damn" over a hundred times. Whoops! How bloody monotonous. ;)

Wylie Kinson said...

LOVE Joanna Bourne!! I can't wait to read her latest...

Great topic. ARG - I'm going thru this at the moment with my futuristic... looking for an appropriate expression of disgust/surprise.
Frack is too Battlestar Galactica for my taste and damn, bloody hell, etc are too 'now'.

I'm open to suggestions!

M. said...

Julia - that's a good one. almost has a religious feel to it.

Ciara - I've never heard of that book but how apropos to this topic! Huge congratulations on completing a WIP. That's an enormous milestone. I should know, I'm not there yet.

Wylie - a futuristic!Is there nothing you can't do? I agree that 'frack' has been done sufficiently by now. My suggestions would probably skate too close to silly for what you write - see 'thwortle' and 'half-giraffe' in post...

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