A newspaper editor I know once told me about an adventurous photojournalist he worked with who had found himself in a dangerous situation while on assignment in Central America. The photojournalist, a New Yorker, was working on an article about the drug trade and he had hired a translator to help him locate sources for the story. Unfortunately, the photojournalist and the translator were kidnapped by gang members and ordered into the back of a van. The gang had already taken their money and everything of potential value in their wallets. So, being driven to who knows where could only end badly, the photojournalist thought. And so did the translator, who began to converse with his captors.
He not only pleaded with the men in the van, he cracked jokes with them using euphemisms and phrases unique to their region of Latin America. He was able to connect with his captors in a visceral way. Eventually, the translator had won over the gang long enough to cajole an inkling of mercy. They released him and the photojournalist, who returned to New York with one story of the impact of drug trafficking on a community and another about his own harrowing experience. He told my editor friend that what saved his life was the translator’s ability to understand slang.
That conclusion resonated with me. When creating characters, writers need to get deeply into their worlds to convince readers to not put down the story. Proper use of slang is a way to round out your characters, ground your story in reality and force you to be creative. Using it too much or incorrectly, on the other hand, will turn off readers.
Elmore Leonard, often noted for his extraordinary use of dialogue, is well known for hanging around police precincts to get to know the language of the place while writing one of his books. By understanding how people in real-life situations talk, you add a layer of specificity that gets you toward the end goal of creating believable, riveting stories.
Although Ernest Hemingway advocated against the use of slang “except in dialogue and then only when avoidable,” the truth is he called on slang and euphemisms as well as any writer. In “Hills Like White Elephants”, it’s powerful and even creepy when the man tells the woman the operation being discussed is “just to let the air in.” Rather than being direct, Hemingway uses a subtle phrase to let the reader conjecture about the topic. It’s a brilliant use of dialogue and astute observation of human behavior. We come up with different ways of saying the same thing in part to exercise our imaginations, in part to avoid the discomfort of addressing an issue head-on.
If you’re working on a story now, or planning to start writing, give careful consideration to how your characters will converse. Of all the components that go into creating good fiction, dialogue may be the most difficult to master. Dissecting exactly why that is will be saved for another entry. For now, think about how words and phrases used by some characters – Holden Caulfield’s “phony”, for example – can become iconic. Then set out to give your characters voices that define who they are, where they’re from and how they think.