Posted in Literature, Writing

Using Language and Writing Style to Convey a Character’s State of Mind

Context: As the title states, this article is centered on how you can use various writing styles and word choice to convey one of your character’s state of mind in a novel. I hope aspiring novelists like myself will enjoy this article.

After many years I can still remember the first time I truly recognized how writers can use grammar, language, and certain writing styles to convey a state of mind.

I was in middle school and I had just read Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon. The book covers a mentally handicapped man named Charlie’s experiences while going under a series of surgeries and tests that should increase his intelligence. As is the case with most science fiction stories about playing God: “be careful for what you wish for because you just might get it.” Or in Charlie’s case: you will get what you wish for and then you will loose it…and having gotten your wish is the most painful part of all. It’s like the old saying “better to have loved than to have not loved at all,” except love is substituted for intelligence and the chance at an extraordinary life.

What makes the book unique is how it shows Charlie’s progression and his subsequent regression: through grammar, spelling, sentence structure, language, and Charlie’s changing writing styles. The story is told through a series of progress reports Charlie writes documenting the procedure. In his first couple of entries he has horrible, childlike spelling which makes certain words almost illegible, but as his surgeries continue his writing improves, he can spell words correctly, he uses a more intelligent vocabulary, he writes in complex sentences, he has correct grammar, and soon his writing barely resembles the scribblings of the man the reader met in the first few pages. But Flowers for Algernon is a tragedy, so the results of the surgeries wear off and Charlie regresses: he starts to misspell words, he goes back to writing simple and grammatically incorrect sentences, and he becomes childlike once more, but this time reverting back to his old self is incredibly painful for both Charlie and the reader, which we can tell simply by looking at his writing style.

This stylistic choice on the part of the writer is what makes the book as memorable as it is. If the book had been written in third person with a narrator telling us about Charlie’s experiences, the reader would have been left cold by the clinical nature of the story, but by telling the story in first person and having the chapters of the book written as Charlie would write them makes us understand and empathize with the character all the more. Compare this to the novel Forrest Gump or psychological evaluations of the mentally handicapped. Which is more empathetic towards the patient? Which form makes the reader understand the patient better?

On another note, what about grammar and sentence structure in films and television programs? I have a request for you, my reader: first read or watch a film adaptation based off of a work by William Shakespeare and pay attention not the visuals in the film but to the language. Then follow this up by watching an episode of HBO’s The Wire immediately after. The sudden change in language is really jarring, as it should be. Yet both use language to convey a character’s state of mind. Shakespeare’s characters pontificate and monologue, they ramble with flowery words that are too poetic to be made up on the spot. Then examine the language characters use on The Wire. They swear. They shout. They spit out their words quickly using a language that is their own. Each work conveys something about the characters’ states of mind and their environment through how the character speaks.

Here is another example: read a chapter from a book by Jane Austen and then follow it up with reading the dialogue from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Jane Austen’s character Mr. Darcy is well spoken and well read, which can be seen in his dialogue, while Huck and Jim can barely read, if at all, and they talk in their own vernacular. I’ve found that reading the dialect heavy dialogue in Mark Twain’s most famous books to be a nightmare: it is like attempting to wade through mud in a slimy swamp: you can barely move and it is exhausting to get through. This is probably why I do not appreciate Twain’s writing the way I do other writers: it’s all about the language.

A character’s use of language is just as important as the writer’s use of language. It can tell use about a character’s background, their intelligence, their education, their class, their race, their ethnicity, even their gender. Every character you read or write should not sound the same, just as every person does not sound the same. A writer’s use of language can place you inside a character’s head and environment or it can alienate you from the story completely.

Read More:

You can read Flowers for Algernon here:

Here is a great essay which can help you understand Huck’s vernacular:’s-vernacular-throughout-the-adventures-of-huckleberry-finn/)


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