Posted by: Alice Fitzpatrick | August 25, 2014

What I Learned About Being a Writer From Lewis Carroll Part 3

         I recently shared two of my favourite quotations from Alice in Wonderland and discussed how they illustrate the writing process.  For the next two weeks I am looking at Lewis Carroll’s companion book Through the Looking Glass.

You Are the Master of Your Own Words

         “There’s glory for you!’”

         “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.

         Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant ‘here’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”

         “But ‘glory ’doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,” Alice objected.

         “When I use a word,’” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

         “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

         “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

humpty-dumpty1As someone with a long history of academic writing (I still have to remind myself to use contractions!) and almost forty years experience teaching high school students the rules of writing, what I find so liberating about writing fiction is being able to break the rules.

 I enjoy having my characters speak ungrammatically. It makes me feel like I’m getting away with something. I find guilty pleasure in ending lines of dialogue with prepositions, dangling my participles, ignoring proper noun-verb agreement. This is the way real people speak and so this is how my characters must speak. Like each of us, individual characters have their own individual rhythm, syntax, and colloquialisms. For example, Kate, my English-teacher protagonist, is the only character I allow to use “whom” in her narrative voice

Not only does each decision a writer makes reflect an aspect of the character, it differentiates the characters for the reader. We’ve all read books where each character speaks in the same way, with the same voice. Put two or three characters in a conversation, remove the “he said” and “she said” and suddenly we have no idea who’s speaking. To keep consistency in my own books, I have a database of my characters’ favourite expressions. That way I can remember who says “aye” instead of “yes” and who addresses his women friends as “m’darlin’’”.

My favourite part of fiction writing is inventing and bending the language. I revel in onomatopoeia, where I create words to imitate the sound of a hand hitting a bar top, ice cubes cracking in a glass of water, or a motorcycle speeding through the countryside. Bending nouns and other parts of speech into verbs is happening more and more often these days in the real world: we “facebook”, “journal”, and “workshop”. To reshape our words in our writing gives fiction a unique voice and adds different colours to the narrative. And if someone complains, just remind him/her that we’re following in the footsteps of Shakespeare. He started it!

Following Humpty’s advice liberates a writer. Just be sure that you take your readers along with you for if you leave them behind, you’ve defeated the purpose of the whole endeavor. Your manipulation of the language is there to add to the understanding and appreciation of your story, not to block it. I have read too many writers who were, not to put too fine a point on it, were simply showing off. Readers shouldn’t have to have to be linguists to keep up with you.


  1. Excellent blog. I had some ditzy reader – never actually met her but she told my daughter-in-law that she went through my book and marked in red all the grammar errors. I couldn’t figure out where they were when no one else had ever commented on them, but now I get it. It was the poor grammar of some of my characters. Thanks for clearing that up for me. I like your idea of writing down different language quirks of the different characters.

  2. Glad you like the blog, Gloria. When I teach grammar to my ESL/English students, I make sure they learn the rules. I won’t accept: “This is the correct answer because it sounds better.” I tell them that spoken language isn’t grammatically correct so you might not be used to hearing the correct form. For example, If you go to your friend’s apartment, ring their buzzer (the use of the plural “their” is something we all do in speaking to avoid the awkward “his/her” singular 3rd person pronoun when we don’t know the gender!), and when they ask “Who is it?”, you never say “It is I.” They’re shocked when I tell them that is the correct form of the pronoun, but you almost never hear anyone say that except for the odd English teacher and Shakespearean actor!

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