On Voice and Language: You say Les-tat. I say Les-tah.

You know you’re a writer, or at least obsessive compulsive, when you wake up at 4 am with the thought: Did I use ‘sodden’ correctly in my Facebook wall post? Language is our biggest tool as writers. We study grammar and punctuation, knowing all the rules and following them before deciding when and where to break them. (Strict and proper comma usage is usually the first victim). But being able to spell or write a well-formed sentence doesn’t make one a good writer or create lucid prose. There’s a particular alchemy that occurs when you first write something that springs to life beneath your fingertips. Grammar provided the bones, but somehow you managed to tack on flesh and imbue the work with breath. It’s been compared to divine possession and called inspiration, but what you’ve done is feel the first stirrings of voice, the elusive, creative quality every writer seeks to find, retain, and master.

Language is the framework in which we play, and if we’re very good, we get to color outside the lines from time to time. In fantasy, there’s a strong tendency to twist language into lovely, unpronounceable forms. I’m guilty, and in all honesty, original names are one of my favorite elements of the genre. Yet at the same time, there’s a certain useful simplicity in naming your main character Will, Sally, or Brandon. Your reader isn’t thrown out of the story every time they see the name in print. Sometimes I listen to an audio book and when I see the protagonist’s name later. I can’t even recognize it, though I’ve heard it aloud a thousand times.

So what’s the answer in my opinion? It’s the answer I always give: balance. Keep it accessible. Don’t send me scurrying to the Internet to look up Old Norse phonetics unless you’re clever enough to sneak in some clues along the way. If your character has a much clearer nickname, just make that their common name. You can tell me they have some meaningful, twisty name later. You might be sacrificing some of the depth, but your reader won’t notice because they’ll be more deeply engrossed in your story.

2 thoughts on “On Voice and Language: You say Les-tat. I say Les-tah.

  1. Alex Harrow says:

    Hahaha on the facebook reflection – I am SO glad I’m not the only one who obsesses over these things, really 😉 Also, I guess I’m a bit anal retentive as far as language is concerned. Nothing drives me up the wall more than people using foreign language in their books and doing it wrong (the latest offender was Lauren Oliver’s DELIRIUM – which is a GREAT YA, btw and I loved it, but apparently people seem to be completely oblivious to other languages having different cases etc. so things actually don’t mean what they think they mean in juxtaposition and as a result the little former Latin major in me has the linguistic equivalent of a coronary 😉
    Truly though, it’s fun to use different languages in your writing. My dystopian novel has a lot of French for example, though some of it is deliberately bastardized (which would be why I a) probably need to have a little afterword snip and b) don’t refer to it as French in the book). It’s fun to do as long as you do it right. Cross-checking your sources never hurts and if you aren’t sure about something, ask a native speaker. That’s what the internet is for – to have all kinds of wonderful friends in strange places who can answer weird late-night questions 😉

  2. My favorites are apostrophes in the middle of names. I never quite know what to do…

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