L is for Language #AtoZChallenge

Creating a Believable Sense of Place

A guest post by Luke Wortley

I once attended a lecture on a graduate school visit that centered on place as a veritable character. This got me thinking…how in the world does “place” become a character? My B.A. is in Spanish and so I got to thinking that it could have something to do with language. After all, characters become people by speaking to each other, right? Why could language not transcend the conventional barriers of being able to “speak”?

For instance, in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad), the town of Macondo actually takes on a personality of its own. When unraveling the individual threads of Marquez’s narrative string, it becomes quite clear that the place of Macondo is actually created by the people that inhabit it. Each individual character has a distinct method of speaking and the narrative style comes alive because of this.

I’m saying that language can be used to actually enhance a believable sense of place for a reader, rather than confuse them. Foreign language, when used in context, is a very effective tool in setting the scene and creating authenticity. Narrative style in English, of course, has a distinctly different style than Gaelic, Spanish, French, etc. However, dropping certain elements of a foreign language into an English narrative or dialogue make for not only an interesting read, but a more credible one. Let me be clear, I’m not suggesting that one simply try the “carpet bomb” method where random words are typed into a translation machine and then inserted at random intervals on a page – similar to when a sixth grader drops a load of impertinent quotes in their first research paper. It definitely takes a certain touch, but when done effectively, can literally transport a reader to a new place that would otherwise be considered foreign.

One of the best-known examples (and very well-executed) of this is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. While the text is mostly English, the Ibo culture is described incredibly vivid by integrating the native tongue into the story. The very names of the characters are authentic (Okonkwo, etc.) and already create a more believable sense of place. Intermittent additions of the Ibo language when talking about the yam harvest also bring the story’s already exquisite detail to the fore, stimulating all the senses of the reader at once.

While language is incredibly important for developing voice and character, its role in creating a believable sense of place can be incredibly important. Keep in mind that foreign language is not necessarily the only avenue for incorporating language into creating place. Even variants in the English dialect can have a tremendous impact on the credibility of a story (Ebonics, Southern, etc.). Try experimenting with language in both narration and dialogue. The interplay between these two elements forms the basis of the “language” that is constantly spoken between characters and their environment.

Luke is also participating in the A to Z Challenge. Check out his posts HERE. You can also Follow Him On Twitter.

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