Every household has words and phrases that are regularly trotted out now matter how bewildering they might be.
When I was a child my grandmother would ask us to run an errand or bring her something she needed because she ‘had a bone in her leg‘. We young children scampered off to do the requested task and it was some years before we even stopped to think that everyone has a bone in their leg, if not several. We had been conned by our grandmother.
A friend has a mother who described her as ‘all over the place like a mad woman’s breakfast’, probably not PC but definitely descriptive.
Another favourite saying of grandma’s, which she used when we were sulking or unhappy was: ‘You look like a wet week in a thunderstorm.’ And she had many more just as obscure.
These family phrases can help to bring characters to life. Readers relate to familiar phrases and enjoy reading about those particular to other families. Specific words and phrases can help create distinctive characters who are easily identifiable and whom the reader can instantly differentiate from other characters in a story.
‘It’s wicked, innit?‘ Sonia says. ‘I slept in and thought: that’s it I’m done for! And then I find out the trains are held up, I would of been late anyway. So random. Totally wicked!’
‘Every cloud has a silver lining so they say,‘ Hettie agrees. ‘Except for your father, of course, I think his linings wore out. He’s like a wet week in a thunderstorm. But remember once burned twice shy. That train won’t be late every day, mark my words.’
What words and phrases were your family fond of using? As a reader how do you feel when there is that flash of recognition when you read familiar phrases used by characters in stories? What is your reaction you when you read new, fresh ‘favourite phrases’ used by characters in a story?
How important are these distinctive phrases in developing characters and bringing characters to life through dialogue?
Understanding readers’ perspectives on these aspects is valuable to writers.
As a writer, do you listen, eavesdrop, note down the way someone expresses a comment, uses the language in an original, humorous or distinctive way? Do you recall those words and phrases used by friends and family and give them to characters to help distinguish them and make them distinct and instantly recognisable?
Amardo: How has thou purchased this experience?
Moth, his boy: By my penny of observation.
Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost.
From the preface of ‘on experience’ by David Malouf, published Melbourne University Press 2008. (Highly recommended for readers and writers).
on experience David Malouf