Language As A Character Trait

Today’s topic is using foreign language to define character.

When I say language, I’m talking about how a character speaks. The words he chooses, how he structures his sentences – all those quirks of speech that make a person’s voice unique. In this post, I’m going to focus on foreign words and how to use them effectively.


The most obvious use of foreign language is to provide insight into a character’s background.

languageSomeone who habitually uses pieces of another language is likely to have lived abroad for a significant amount of time. If that’s the case, the use of foreign words could be a way of showcasing a character’s heritage, or imply pride and respect for the culture. Of course, it could also simply be habit. Either way, it gives the character a connection to the culture in question.

The Tiger’s Curse series by Colleen Houck is a good example of this. Two of her characters use Hindi pet names when referring to the protagonist, adding an exotic feel to their speech. At the same time, the reader is given the impression that they carry affection and respect for their heritage.


Language can also be used to demonstrate ability or education.

This one could, surprisingly, go either way. On the one hand, you have the academic who intentionally uses complicated foreign words to showcase her knowledge. On the other hand, you have the traveler who unconsciously uses foreign terms because he hasn’t quite got a handle on the local language. One uses language as a way to impress, the other as a fallback when he can’t find the right words. In the case of the traveler, his use of language gives him an exotic feel. In the case of the academic, her language can easily come across as boastful or condescending.


The main thing to keep in mind when using foreign language is not to overdo it. speech memeExcessive use can quickly become annoying, and throwing too many new words into play is sure to confuse readers. As writers, we want to entertain, not frustrate. No one wants to be continuously flipping back and forth for definitions.

Keep it simple – in many cases, two or three words used sparingly will do just as much as a full sentence or (heaven forbid) paragraph. J.R.R. Tolkien invented seven languages while writing Lord of the Rings, but only a fraction of those words actually made it in the books.


Finally, one last note: always provide a translation.

You can have a character define a word, provide an index in the back, or even let the context do the defining, but make sure the reader knows what’s being said. Even if a word is only there to illustrate setting or character, define it anyway. Readers are curious people. If you start throwing mystery words around, they will want to know what they mean.

There is one exception to this rule: curse words. If you want to define them, go ahead, but the context generally makes it unnecessary. The reader will get the idea.

Besides, if you don’t define a curse word, technically, no one can get mad at you for saying it!

Character Clothing, Part 2

Welcome back, everyone – this is part two in my series on clothing. As promised, today I’ll talk a bit about symbolism, fashion trends, and tradition.


I’ll begin with symbolism and the importance of color.

When it comes to clothes, the easiest way to symbolize something is by using color meanings. Different cultures assign different meanings to different colors; I’m going to focus on western symbolism today. Here’s a quick run-through of the basic color meanings:


Red – passion, love, anger, danger

Yellow – blindness or illumination, sometimes at the same time

Green – birth, rebirth

color wheelPurple – royalty

Pink – femininity

White – purity, life

Black – death

Gray – life and death at the same time

Gold – wealth

Brown – of the earth


Of course, you’re welcome to use another culture’s symbolism, but keep in mind that your readers will assume you’re using what they know. If you want to use something else, make sure you at least hint at its meaning.

(For a more in-depth look at cultural color symbolism, check out this page.)

In the same way, you’re welcome to make up your own color meanings – just make sure you explain them. (This is where a foreign character is helpful; his ignorance of the culture opens the door for natural explanations and helps you avoid exposition.)

Another thing to take into consideration when choosing what color someone is wearing is the cost. Some colors are harder to manufacture, and therefore carry a higher price. For example, greens, yellows, and browns come from plants and are fairly cheap to make. Blues and purples, on the other hand, come from materials that are difficult to gather, like snail shells and lapis lazuli. There’s a reason purple is the color of royalty – it’s a cheaper version of blue, the most expensive color.


ribbonsNext, a word on fashion trends.

Now, some of you will have no problem understanding what drives trends and have a great time deciding what’s in style in your world. For those of you like me, who have no idea, don’t panic. Unless you’re writing a novel about a dressmaker or high-society lady, you’re not going to need to go in-depth.

Basically, just be aware that trends exist. Certain classes will follow them almost religiously: the nobility, for the status and show of wealth, and the middle class, in an attempt to copy the nobility and appear high class.

For a writer’s purposes, trends can be as simple as “beaded trim is the latest thing” or “bright colors are in right now.” The level of detail is entirely up to you.


Finally, we’ll end with tradition.

This can be as basic as peasants wearing simple clothing because it’s practical, or as complicated as avoiding a certain style due to a social stigma. You’ll want to think beyond “we’ve always worn our sleeves like this” to what’s considered modest, inappropriate, or forbidden.

kimonoIs a certain color only for the nobility?

Is black thought to cause bad luck?

Are there any punishments for dressing above your station?

Is it socially acceptable for girls to wear pants?

Where is the line between modest and risqué?

Does style or color signify profession?

Tradition, if used correctly, can add a wealth of depth to a setting.


Hopefully this has given you something interesting to think about – as always, thanks for reading!

Character Clothing, Part 1

This post is actually the first in a two-part series about clothes and character dress. The first section focuses on why clothing is a valuable tool in fiction and how to design unique garments. The next section will talk about tradition, trends, and symbolism.


clothes babyFirst off: why is clothing important? (Apart from the obvious, that is.) After all, some writers say a character has a blue shirt and leave it at that. However, this leaves the reader with very little to go on. Having a level of detail, even if only in your head, will show through in your work and help others visualize. If you can’t picture what the character’s wearing, you can hardly expect your reader to.

In addition, clothing can be a valuable tool in establishing setting. If your heroine is wearing a floor-length, velvet dress, we clearly aren’t in modern times. If she’s wearing jeans and a tank top, we’re unlikely to be anywhere else. Unless we’re in a time-travel story. In that case, good job achieving maximum contrast.

(On a side note, if your story is set in a specific time and place, don’t make things up – do the research and match your setting. Anything else will take readers out of the story.)

Clothing can also tell a lot about the character wearing it. Dull earth tones could mean the hero can’t afford bright colors or simply doesn’t want to stand out. Elaborate stitching or embroidery shows that the heroine is well-off, or at least has access to hand-me-downs from someone who is. Black leather and chains definitely screams ‘rebel’ (and probably ‘delinquent’). When we first meet a character, what they’re wearing can be our best indicator of personality and circumstance.


sariNow, let’s move on to the fun part: designing.

Don’t panic – you don’t have to invent a totally new style for your character to stand out. There are plenty of places you can draw from. Once you find something you like, steal it, adapt it, or mix it with something else.

So: inspiration.

The most obvious place to look is at different cultures’ traditional wear. (Everything I’ve said in other posts about Eastern vs. Western cultures also applies here: If you want exotic, go east. Close to home, stay west.) It also helps to be specific when you search. Plug “traditional Japanese clothes” into Google and you’ll get results. Put in “Japanese women’s clothes warring states era” and you’ll get better ones. You can get much more if you search a specific time period – just think of how much fashion changed between the 70s and 80s.

Another potential source is modern clothing. Today’s fashions can be great inspiration, but generally work best for more futuristic stories. Even if your society is very progressive, it’s going to seem odd to have contemporary-based clothing in a more medieval setting. In some cases, material or manufacture would make it impossible.

holo2The last source I have for you is anime and movies. When it comes to fantasy clothes, I have yet to find a more varied or unique selection. Anime in particular has some very creative costumes, once you get past the blatant fan service outfits. And the best part is, there will be plenty of pictures floating around the internet.

(Note: be careful about using movies as sources for period clothing; they’re not always historically accurate.)

Remember, when you find something (or even part of something) that works – steal, adapt, mix, or combine.


That’s all I have for you today – come back next time for section two!

A Word On Names

Today, I’m going to talk about names.

Names are an important tool in both creating a character and establishing a setting. In most cases, it will provide the reader’s first impression of person or place, so a carefully chosen name is essential.

Stick around and I’ll show you where to go for names and a few tips for making up your own.

world flagsLet’s start with “normal” names – those we might hear in everyday life. I’m also including culture-specific names in this category.

The most common piece of advice I’ve heard for this type of name is “look at baby name books/websites.” This is perfectly good advice. However, I’ve found that by far the best resource is a website called Behind the Name. This is my go-to place for character names, especially if I’m looking for something cultural.

The site is basically an extensive collection of names from different cultures, time periods, and works of fiction. You can search by usage, origin, meaning, popularity, gender – there are even a few lists you can use. (For example, one list is for names with “brave” meanings.) If you look under “tools,” you’ll also find a random name generator, an anagram search tool, and a link to the surname section of the site.

Next up is fantasy and sci-fi names.

In some cases, it’s fine to use names from the everyday category in these stories, especially if you’re using a pseudo-medieval setting. (If this is you, I’d recommend checking out the Ancient/Medieval section of Behind the Name.) Everyday names also work fine for humans in a sci-fi setting. In other cases, you might need or simply want to make up a unique name.

starshipThis can be harder than it looks.

First off, a word of warning: try to avoid names with over-complicated spellings, no matter how cool it looks. If the reader can’t pronounce it, how are they going to recommend your book to their friends? Chances are, they won’t.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t be creative with your spellings – oftentimes, that’s exactly what makes a name stand out. Just don’t go overboard. There’s no need to say “Märyissah” if “Marissa” will work just as well. (Also, don’t use diacritical marks – like the dots over that first ‘a’ – if you don’t know what they mean.)

If you need inspiration, try looking at names or words from other cultures. Using an Asian base will give a name a more exotic feel, while a European base will call to mind something a little closer to home. If you want something truly unique, try looking at an Elvish dictionary. (Nevrast is a good one.)

Pick the culture closest to your setting and go from there. Or, if you like, pick a culture that’s nothing like your setting. Contrast can be an effective tool. Just be careful not to confuse your readers – giving someone in a European-like setting an Asian-sounding name (or vice versa) can be jarring.

nameless signFinally, here are a few tips for place names.

If your writing is set in a real place, you obviously don’t need to worry about this. For the rest of us, choosing a name can be difficult.

The easiest way to come up with a believable place name (by which I mean it sounds like a place rather than a random word) is to go look at a map. If you’re trying to name a city, look at the names of real cities. If you’re naming a country, look at country names. Check for patterns in letters, sounds, number of syllables. Most importantly, look at how they end.

City names often end with ‘polis,’ ‘n,’ ‘town,’ ‘s,’ or even ‘city.’ Country names often end with ‘a,’ ‘land,’ ‘ia,’ ‘us,’ or ‘ea.’ Look for trends like these and incorporate them into your fictional names. Alternately, start with an actual place name, then add on to it or take something away.

You can make your place names as realistic or cliché as you want – whatever works for your setting.

Now, my friends, go forth and name thy creations!

Creating A Character

Today, I’m going to talk about creating characters.

As a fiction writer, your characters are arguably the most important aspect of your writing. (After all, a plot isn’t going anywhere without someone to move it.) Whether you call them characters, figments, or simply the voices in your head, they should be as real as possible. If they’re flat or uninspiring, it had better be on purpose and for plot reasons.


I know of a few places to start when trying to invent a character; today I’m going to talk about three.

my name is....First, you can start with a name. Many names will give you a specific image when you hear them. Sally and Joe are normal, everyday people. Zane and Esperanza are exciting and perhaps slightly foreign. Kyinzarah and Tinuviel clearly belong in a fantasy setting. Pick a name that gives you the right impression, then go from there. If you have an impression, you have the beginnings of a personality.

Second, you can start with an appearance. Sometimes, a character will show up in your head complete with eye color, costume, and interesting hairstyle. Treasure those times. The rest of the time, you can pick some detail of appearance and go from that. For example, a girl with ginger hair. When you picture her, what comes to mind? Probably a stereotype, which you can either use or disregard. The important thing is, you have a start.

perfect foilThird, you can start with a personality trait. This is especially helpful if you need a certain type of character, like a foil for your lead. Just think about what kind of person you want – serious, playful, etc. – and make that their center. (Both name and appearance should match that center, unless you’re going for irony.) Once you’ve got a basic personality idea, work from there. For example, a serious person will take more care with their appearance than a more relaxed personality would.


So, now that you have a beginning, let’s expand.

One of the most helpful tools I’ve come across for developing characters is the character questionnaire. The following list (courtesy of Gail Carson Levine’s book Writing Magic) is a great place to start, but feel free to add or discard questions as it suits your needs.



Nickname, if any:

Kind of being (human, animal, extraterrestrial, fantasy or fairy-tale creature):




Occupation, if applicable:

Family members:


Best friend:

Describe his/her room:

Way of speaking:

Physical characteristics (posture, gestures, attitude):

Items in his/her pockets or backpack or purse:


Favorite sports:

Talents, abilities, or powers:

Relationships (how (s)he is with other people):



Good points:

What (s)he wants more than anything else:


Although I hope this list is as helpful to you as it has been to me, when it comes down to it, the best way to find out more about a character is to write them. Oftentimes the most realistic quirks are the ones that show up when you’re not looking for them.

When your characters start surprising even you, you know you’ve done your job well. When they start disobeying your well-meaning orders… congratulations! Your characters are behaving like real people. Try your best to keep them on track, but don’t be afraid to let them venture outside the script. Best case scenario, you get some interesting and useful content. Worst case scenario, you get to laugh at them for whatever lunacy they’ve gotten themselves into.

With any luck, yours will be more cooperative than mine.


What I Want To Write

Well, seeing as this is my very first blog post, how about I tell you guys a bit about my writing?

First, the basics:

I’m aiming for the teen fiction market, particularly the fantasy/adventure section. (I tried to write sci-fi once. A few scenes in and magic was tangling up the computers, because somebody wanted to be a paladin. *cough cough* protagonist *cough*) I love magic; it finds a place in most of my stories. So if you’re looking for fantasy centered on good storytelling and quirky characters, stick around. My figments and I aim to please.

The other important thing about my writing is that it’s clean – there will be no excessive and/or graphic violence, no frequent swearing, and no, shall we say, suggestive themes. I am not, and never will be, that type of writer.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the fun things.

If you’ve seen my homepage, then you know my main fantasy world is called Kitheria. And yes, I am the type of writer who invents mythology and language for my fiction. (Because J.R.R. Tolkien was an inspiring, brilliant man.)

At least half of the books I have planned will take place in Kitheria. As of right now, I have ideas for two separate series: Archmage and the Enigma Tales.

The Archmage series will follow the adventures of Zemi T’Shiro, zemi_sketchmaster mage and illusionist. Boy, does this guy attract trouble… crazy shapeshifting accidents are only the beginning. Zemi is free-spirited, flamboyant, and loves a dramatic reveal; he’s also something of a magical prodigy. (Don’t worry, there will be plenty of situations to counter that advantage. There are no Mary Sues here.)

The action in this series will mostly take place in Korrem, home to the most prestigious magic school in Kitheria. I’m planning to start things off fairly light-hearted, but the plot will become more serious as things progress. Hopefully, this will happen over the course of seven books. (Because in all honesty, Zemi is my favorite. Don’t tell the others.)

The Enigma Tales series will be a lot more spread out, covering different countries, time periods, and characters. These books will be stand-alone novels linked together 001only in the loosest sense. Their one common thread is the Traveler of many names, whom I call Enigma. (He hates it, but hey, if he won’t tell me his real name….)

I’ve finished a draft of one of these books and am currently working on outlines for a few more. Come December, I hope to have either another book or some major revisions done.

And there you have it – a brief outline of what I’m working on and hope to accomplish. Hopefully I’ve piqued your interest. If you have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear them!