Colloquialisms are frequently intimidating to writers, and the only thing more terrifying than the prospect of replicating the feel of an existing cant is trying to invent one’s own. Part of the terror comes from having seen it done badly. Beginning writers frequently approach this task by coming up with a couple slang terms and stopping there. But slang typically originates from a specific community, and the speech patterns of that imaginary place are unlikely to sound like the writer’s regular writing style. When nothing more is done than to throw in a few new terms, no matter how clever or appropriate those terms are, they feel out of place. To make the slang sound natural, all the words and phrases surrounding it must sound like they arise from the same source.
As a result, figuring out when to use a colloquialism is much like figuring out any other component of character dialog. Every single time a character speaks, you ask yourself not just “Is this what this character would say?”, but also “Is this how a character from there would phrase that?” In many instances the character’s words are presumed to be translated or adapted for the contemporary audience — it’s fine to use existing English verbal quirks and figures of speech as long as they give the right feel. But even though borrowing is a useful technique, if you want your culture to have a unique voice, you will probably need to embellish the dialog with some invented terms or unusual phrases. And don’t be lazy about it either—a couple bits of slang is not enough. What works best is to use enough of them that they can appear on a regular basis, without any one term showing up too frequently.
So how does one come up with these new terms and phrases? Playfully. In real life, most colloquialisms are invented by people who are being creative with words for the joy of it. Someone comes up with a new word or saying that is so fun, appropriate, or just plain cool, that it gets picked up and passed on. Researching real slang will provide you with a near infinite number of examples to inspire you. Perhaps too many. For the best effect in fiction, you want to be a bit more focused than reality. Think about what the reader should know about the community your character comes from. What makes it stand out, both from the surrounding communities, and the world of the reader? Think about the climate, the occupations of the community members, the religious and philosophical aspects of the culture, it’s degree of formality and politeness, and it’s favorite forms of entertainment. Make up terms that show off your enthusiasm for words, but which also put important aspects of your invented culture on display.
Take, for instance, the phrase “he hit the jackpot”, one of dozens of ways of saying someone got lucky. How could you convey a similar idea, in a way that highlights your culture? He found favor with the gods, he saw a white leopard in his dreams, glory kissed him, he hitched a ride on fortune’s comet, he caught a fad, the random factors aligned in his favor, he won the great race, he married a gold mine…? Or what about, “I’m in deep shit”? I’m surrounded by demons, I’ve got two legs down the python’s throat, I’m PA to despair, I’m blackhole bound, It’s power out for me, I think I can stop saving for retirement, I fell down a well, I bought a slum-shack…?
As long as your new phrase has grown out of a suitable environment, and the language around it matches in style, rhythm and content, it will feel at home.
“We were hunters, Agabiaki and I. Together we stalked the shadows beneath the great trees. When the war drums sounded, his party came to Chantika Village in time to save three of the chief’s favorite wives and were showered with gifts and honor. He must have seen a white leopard in his dreams, for I know he is not a greater warrior than I. My party saw only evil omens, and were outnumbered, defeated and captured. I tried to escape, but they caught me again, so now I’ve got two legs down the python’s throat, and my blood will soak the ground if no one steps forward to aid me. This is why I cried out to Agabiaki. ‘Are we not brothers? Did we not share blood?'”
“You wish to know how I met Harding? We grew up together. Forced together by circumstance, you might say, but I don’t think he minded too much. That’s all what was once and long past, of course. When we grew up, glory kissed him and now he’s all about plush corporate offices and multinational deals. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? My own tale is more drab. A wage slave, and currently acting as PA to despair. A little private family trouble, you understand? But I remembered Harding… he’s a good fellow. He might be willing to offer a little assistance to a very old family friend. Loyalty is one of the key virtues of good business, and his business is clearly one of the best.”
“Groudy’s a friend. Get that? I aint no spammer. I knew Groudy before he caught a fad, and went global. So don’t give me that look. I just came to tell him what’s going on with me. Thing is, I got stuck for some stuff I didn’t do, so I guess he won’t see me online no more. Figured he’d wanna know. It ain’t that I unfriended him, its just that if I don’t come up with some product by Monday, it’s power out for me. And I mean that as in me, personally—I’m not talking ’bout the electric bill, you understand? Not that I’m asking Groudy for nothing.”
If coming up with this sort of thing off the top of your head is difficult for you, it may be helpful to collect a list of your own most used phrases, and then when you are trying to build a cultural voice, go through the list coming up with two or three different ways to say each one. That way when you find yourself reaching for a phrase, you’ll have a couple alternatives to choose between.
Some additional hints to keep in mind:
First, the more dialog by members of this community there will be in the story, the more different facets of the community should find their way into the terms you create, and the fewer the lines of dialog, the more sparing and focused you must be.
Secondly, keep in mind the natural life cycle of this kind of language. Usually these terms start out very localized, and then either die out and disappear, or spread further—gaining recognition and acceptance over time. At whatever point the story is taking place, there should exist both a selection of ephemeral slang terms, and some older more accepted colloquialisms that have become a fundamental part of the cultural background. Keep the community’s past in mind as well as it’s present, and have the conservative characters use a higher proportion of terms that come from a generation or more ago, and save a few of the most up-to-date terms for use only by the young and rebellious.
The last thing to consider is how easily your new figures of speech will be understood by the reader. Terms that must be defined to be understood should be used sparingly. Ones that are self-explanatory can be used more freely.
But the most important thing of all is to just overcome the intimidation factor and learn to enjoy the process of invention. Free your writing spirit, mug your muse, fire up the slangoblaster and align your all six of your souls. The more fun you are having, the more authentic the cant will will be, so blast it out of biosphere! If some of your inventions taste like raw turnips—that’s what beta-readers are for. They’ll let you know which ones fizzle and which ones bang. Rewind the crossbow and shoot another bolt. Remember: it’s just a phrase.
L. Shelby has been inventing worlds for most of her life, and writing about them for past three decades. Her first publication was in 1996, but her debut into the world of ebooks wasn’t until very recently with the trilogy Across a Jade Sea, an Edwardian-era globe-spanning adventure set in an imaginary world. (The first volume is also available as a web serial.)