If You’re an Author, You’re Multilingual—Whether You Know it or Not

ACFWAuthors and writing, Characters, Dialogue, Friends of ACFW, Speaking, Voice, writing Leave a Comment

By Lana Christian

Photo by Amador Loureiro on Unsplash



How many languages do you speak? I speak English and German. English is my dominant (first) language, but sometimes German pops into my thoughts, dreams, and writing without my bidding. That can be good or bad, depending on how you look at it.

My handwritten notes combine English, German, and a personal shorthand—whichever is shorter and faster to write. That’s a plus when inspiration strikes and my laptop isn’t within reach. But it’s embarrassing to inadvertently slip a German word into a spoken conversation.

That’s not as uncommon as it sounds. After I binge-watched a couple seasons of Call the Midwife, I heard myself say, “That’s too dodgy to be safe” as I balanced on the top step of a ladder.

Neuroscientists call it language switching. The brain actively juggles multiple languages and decides which one should dominate and when. Sometimes without our input.

I’m no neuroscientist, but I submit that every author, by definition, language-switches all the time.

As you write, you flip back and forth between how you talk and how your characters talk. Sometimes you can almost hear your characters in your head. Especially in inconvenient places like the shower.

How your characters talk needs to be clear in your mind before you bring them to life in your story. Do they have a regional accent, mispronounce certain words, use slang, make up words, slip into their birth language when stressed, or spout era-specific clichés?

I write biblical and historical fiction. As I mince my way around anachronisms, I research languages, idioms of the day, and sentence construction. But I must imagine how my characters would talk. We don’t follow perfect sentence construction when we talk, so how would first-century Persians talk differently than we do today? Research can take me only so far. After that, my sanctified imagination must fill in the blanks. If I make the sentence construction too different from what readers are accustomed to, they’ll stumble over my dialogue. But my characters’ speech patterns should consistently show they’re from another time and place. If my character were to gently chide someone by saying, “That’s mean,” it would sound too modern. Instead, my character says, “That is brutally unkind.” The construction tells the reader this character speaks a different language from a different era. It also hints at how well educated he is and that he’s speaking with a friend.

Additionally, that character is always thinking about ten other things in the middle of a conversation, so he speaks in more sentence fragments than my other main characters do. The way he talks lets him jump to another thought faster.

Bottom line: The more adept we as authors become at language-switching, the more consistently we will write the way our characters speak.

In a broader sense, that also pertains to our Christian walk. The more time we spend getting to know God through His Word, the more readily we will “speak” His language. That doesn’t mean becoming fluent in “christianese” phrases, but rather caring about what matters to Him and living accordingly. God’s language (not mine) needs to be my dominant language. My characters can live in my head, too—but God gets the most real estate space.

How your characters talk needs to be clear in your mind before you bring them to life in your story. @LanaCwrites #ACFWBlogs #writetip #critiques #ACFWCommunity Click To Tweet

Lana Christian has a dual writing career in medicine and ministry. She won numerous APEX awards for the former and ACFW awards for the latter. She loves secret staircases, third-story windows, jazz, and chai tea. She believes hiking can solve most problems, but God can solve every problem. Visit her at www.lanachristian.com or Twitter: @LanaCwrites.


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