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Building a Lexicon

Great books write their own dictionaries and lexicons, in a way. This is pretty commonplace in fantasy, where you rack up terms, place names, slang, and other words that are part of complex world building. Many fantasy series, in fact, have their own affiliated or “unofficial” encyclopedias published once the series runs out and a publisher senses that there is still money in ‘dem dere hills to be made from fans. Having special words, repeating images, inside jokes and the like serves to bring readers further into your world because they feel like a member of an exclusive club.

But non-fantasy novels can have this inclusive, world building effect, too. One of the best examples I can think of has been stuck in my head because we’ve randomly named our GPS voice “Patty.” Relevant? Hardly. Stick with me for a minute, though, because it’s about to get more random. The only thing I can think of when I hear the name “Patty” is Tina Fey. I have her and her book BOSSYPANTS on the brain often, actually, because I have played the excellent audiobook of her reading it on no less than three road trips. If you’ve read BOSSYPANTS, you may remember an episode from her summer theatre days where her melodramatic friend throws himself a coming-out party, a “gay-but.” To the apparent surprise of his girlfriend. Whose name is Patty, and who has a face that resembles a scone. That’s a funny enough detail in and of itself. But what does Tina Fey, an expert at turns of phrase and building inside jokes, if you’ve seen 30 Rock, do next? She keeps elaborating on Patty’s sconelike face shape in several iterations throughout the story. My favorite is when she calls her “Sconeface Patty.” Each time it’s mentioned, not only do we laugh harder, because it’s always an unexpected riff on what we’re already expecting, but we feel closer to the story because we get it. We’re right there in it.

Creating a lexicon is especially important when you’re working on two elements: a sense of place, and a sense of voice. If your novel’s setting has a quarry in it where everyone goes to make out, you can invent your own shorthand, just like you would in real life. “We drove past Makeout Mountain to hit up the Dairy Queen” will become familiar to your readers as they try to picture your small town. Keep mentioning it to make those streets and country roads feel intimate. You’re creating a place out of thin air, after all. You need to give it some grip. And once something is established, think of ways to refer to it that bring the reader into the fold.

In terms of voice, different characters should have distinct ways of talking. That involves turns of phrase, images, words, etc. that will create their own lexicons for each character. Don’t take this to a caricature place, though. Just like you’d never want a dialect to completely take over what the character is saying, don’t layer on catch-phrases and weird slang too thick. But think about rhythm, word choice, way of describing something. I don’t think Tina Fey would’ve settled for “Sconeface Patty” if she’d genuinely liked the girl, for example. Think of how your characters describe good things, bad things, things when they’re in a good mood, things when they’re feeling annoyed, on and on and on.

Your goal with a book is to draw in your reader. One way of doing that is to get them in on the joke of your very own lexicon.

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  1. Christina C.’s avatar

    This is so so true for contemporary YA as well, as you say, and it’s just so important to create this intimate feeling from setting, like you’d get if you were growing up in that town. An awesome example of setting having its own lexicon, but pertaining to the realistic aspect of the story, is Beautiful Creatures by Garcia and Stohl. The Shop n Steal where all the high schoolers hang out (which of course has a a more respectable real name) is something I’ll always remember!! :)

  2. Christina C.’s avatar

    It would be awesome if you could mention a few examples of good character voice in another post, with your usual helpful advice about how to avoid them becoming caricatures. Please please please!! :)

  3. Franz’s avatar

    I think there are some examples in Writing Irresistible Kidlit, if I remember correctly. I’ll have a look later if I remember. Got to read that again and make notes this time!

    Love this post. Difficult to pull off (well, it is for me right now!) but so good when it works.

  4. B.D. Knight’s avatar

    This post arrived at the exact moment I was working on building a new fantasy world (a scary one). It seems like it might be worthwhile to keep notes like you are doing a dictionary as you go along, even if it’s for your own reference.

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