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I like to have my characters use the occasional saying or proverb in my writing. I think it makes them more three-dimensional.



The best ones have a kind of poetry to them. ‘More haste less speed’; ‘Least said, soonest mended’, ‘No smoke without fire’ etc.


Of course, as writers, we must take care to use them correctly. For example, while you could probably get away with using ‘Least said, soonest mended’ in most stories, having someone say ‘We’re not at home to Mr. Rude’ in a Viking saga just wouldn’t fit. 

Nevertheless, used with care, they’re a powerful tool. 


I know what you’re thinking, that’s all fine and dandy-doodle, but what about those of us who write fantasy and science fiction? We can’t use well-known sayings in a non-earthly world at all.   


True enough. As a matter of fact, I face that exact same problem when I get back to work on my Champion novels next month.   They’re set in a medieval world where Humans are just one among dozens of species to have evolved into ‘humanoid’ form. Anytime one of my characters utters an ‘earthly’ saying, I risk breaking that suspension-of-disbelief contract with my reader.


However, that’s not to say we can’t use those sayings at all, but we do have to adapt them. For example, in Champion: A Union of Snakes, instead of ‘More haste, less speed’, I have a character say ‘No sense rushing. Not unless you want to get there slower’ (I know it doesn’t roll off the tongue so well, but the longer sentence fits well with this fellow’s garrulous manner).


Then there are the not so well known phrases, those catchy one-liners that perhaps aren’t so widely used, which are fair game to one and all.


Take my old gran for example. She had loads of them: ‘Better out than in’, ‘Who are you looking at, fish-face?’, ‘Nanny breaky fingers’.  I've used at least one of those in a novel. 


How about you? Do you have a favorite proverb or saying you've used in your writing?


Have you ever made up your own?


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( 36 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 10th, 2009 03:59 pm (UTC)
You're right in that you have to be careful using this sort of thing in some types of fiction because it can crack that suspension of disbelief barrier pretty fast.

I guess I sometimes use phrases in dialogue to accent a character. In my Haxan stories Marwood often says things such as, "Mayhap you're right" or "Belike he wanted it that way" and little things like that. It's just a way to help paint the character, imo. But you have to be careful bc a little goes a long way.

I'm trying to remember if I made up phrases or sayings. I'm sure I have, but always with the understanding that it MUST NOT get in the way of the story that's being told. And sometimes that's hard to do, so it's best to kill that darling and just move on, imo.
Aug. 10th, 2009 05:00 pm (UTC)
Oh yes, you can definitely have too much of a good thing.

The same goes for a catchphrase, but they do help :)
Aug. 10th, 2009 04:11 pm (UTC)
My favorite? Proverbs 26:11. I use it all the time to describe the individuals who are still waiting for another Star Wars film.
Aug. 10th, 2009 05:04 pm (UTC)
"People curse the man who hoards grain, but blessing crowns him who is willing to sell?"

I don't get it. Oh, wait that's 11:26 :)
Aug. 10th, 2009 04:13 pm (UTC)
One of my favorite challenges at Liberty Hall (weekly timed challenges for flash fiction, with a trigger -- give it a try sometime! or pm me for the address/website) was to include a proverb into a story. I ended up having one of my characters spout proverbs right and left, which was a lot of fun. Since I write medival-world-type fantasy, I adapted a lot of them so they didn't sound too modern. That was fun, too.
Aug. 10th, 2009 05:05 pm (UTC)
It's great fun adapting them, makes me feel all creative :)
Aug. 10th, 2009 04:19 pm (UTC)
Oh, I wish I could make some up. I love how some authors do that so well--clever twists on phases, finding proverbs, etc., that match the times or worlds. Nope, not me. At least not yet. But I do admire the talent. Now I'm wanting to look up some books where I recall authors making up great sayings, so apropos for their worlds.

Seems like people with quick humor and clever comebacks in general are good at these things. Do you have others you haven't mentioned here?
Aug. 10th, 2009 05:08 pm (UTC)
I don't know if Tolkein made it up or not, but he has a few in his books. I remember Bilbo saying "Third time pays for all." several times in The Hobbit. I'm fair sure 'Never laugh at live dragons is made up" :)
Aug. 10th, 2009 04:23 pm (UTC)
Wait a second...isn't the saying "Less haste, more speed?" That just makes more sense. Then again, if that's the way your old gran used to say it, I'll accede to her wisdom. ;)

My favorite made-up idiom? "Does that pluck any hairs for you?" Kind of speaks for itself. I don't remember the idiom I was trying to avoid at the time!
I often do what you do, turn an idiom just a bit so that it says the same thing, only differently. All language is full of idioms. A language without them doesn't ring true. We need them as a part of our world building as much as we need smells and tastes and sights and sounds.
Aug. 10th, 2009 04:38 pm (UTC)
It works the same both ways. Less haste = more speed. More haste = less speed :-)

...and now I've heard it both ways, I can't remember which is the one I knew first... *wry grin*
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Aug. 10th, 2009 04:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Aug. 10th, 2009 05:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Aug. 10th, 2009 05:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Aug. 10th, 2009 05:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Aug. 10th, 2009 05:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Aug. 10th, 2009 06:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Aug. 10th, 2009 10:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 10th, 2009 04:24 pm (UTC)
Two I know I've used: "You've got to eat a bag of dirt before you die," which I know my grandmother used to say, and my favorite saying ever--"God says take what you want, and pay for it."
Aug. 10th, 2009 05:13 pm (UTC)
Lol, I thought you were going to go all Pirates of the Caribbean on me with that last one. "Take what you want, give nothing back." :)
(no subject) - black_faery - Aug. 10th, 2009 06:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 10th, 2009 04:26 pm (UTC)
"There is no place where time is forgotten, only where people forget that their time matters." - I love writing the Old Man. :-)

In my current story I have a character, one of the river nymphs, who sings old nursery rhymes. I'm enjoying incorporating those into it, and finding old versions of them like:

"Rock-a-bye baby,
thy cradle is green,
Father's a nobleman,
Mother's a queen."
Aug. 10th, 2009 04:44 pm (UTC)
Oooo! I love that rhyme!
(no subject) - black_faery - Aug. 10th, 2009 06:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Aug. 10th, 2009 08:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Aug. 10th, 2009 05:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - black_faery - Aug. 10th, 2009 06:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Aug. 10th, 2009 10:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 10th, 2009 05:10 pm (UTC)
I loved the "Winter is Coming" bit out of the GRRM Song of Ice and Fire books. It really just sums it all up, doesn't it?

I absolutely hate most of Stephen Kind's little sayings which now permeate his characters dialogues.
Aug. 10th, 2009 05:14 pm (UTC)
I guess that's a danger too. If the saying grates on the reader, so will the character.
Aug. 10th, 2009 05:55 pm (UTC)
I love looking at proverbs from other cultures (or from our culture in a previous time), and tweaking it to fit the story.

"So desperate he'd accept help from a cat" is a favorite of mine (Japanese), and "rough weather makes good timber" is an American country saying no one uses much ... both are easily tweakable.
Aug. 10th, 2009 06:01 pm (UTC)
There must hundreds of wonderful international ones.

I don't know if it's real, but I love the one from Disney's Mulan "No matter how the wind howls, the mountain cannot bow down to it".

Thanks for sharing :)
Aug. 10th, 2009 08:49 pm (UTC)
Another way to use sayings is to help with world-building. It doesn't have to be an old saying rewritten, it could be a completely new saying.

If you figure why that saying came about it could reveal something about that culture or the world.

For instance a post-apocalyptic world may have sayings about washing your hands in order to prevent disease or there could be sayings about how to defeat certain types of creatures. Maybe even sayings about how to escape from enemies or people tracking you.
Aug. 10th, 2009 10:33 pm (UTC)
That's true. Or maybe a twist on something like the 'Red sky at night...' one.
Aug. 10th, 2009 09:16 pm (UTC)
I'm really, really careful about proverbs, because I did my M.A. in German in a department chaired by one of the country's proverb mavens, Wolfgang Mieder. I can't think of one I've made up, but I do sometimes play with them in poetry--a penny saved may tarnish, sort of thing.
Aug. 10th, 2009 10:35 pm (UTC)
Oh yes, I imagine that would work well in poetry. The readers brain would anticipate the second part of the line and so appreciate the difference more :)
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 11th, 2009 11:19 am (UTC)
Sounds good. There are loads of corporate sayings that lend themselves to flash fiction :)
( 36 comments — Leave a comment )

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