15 Figures of Speech to Color Your Characters
Figures of speech can create vivid images in readers’ minds when they read about characters in your works of fiction. By “figures of speech,” however, I don’t mean simply the contemporary techniques of metaphor or hyperbole. I refer, instead, to the classical figures of etymology, orthography, syntax, and rhetoric, which often have applications in both everyday and elegant language.
I shared a list of rhetorical terms some time ago, but here I present specific devices (including some of those I listed before) for suggesting character traits or implying dialect by altering the spelling or form of words or the construction of sentences.
These techniques help convey a character’s voice and/or personality — whether they’re highbrow or lowbrow, pretentious or unaffected, eloquent or inarticulate:
1. Apheresis: elision at the head of a word, such as in ’gainst, (against), often to alter poetic meter.
2. Apocope, or apocopation: elision at the tail of a word, such as ad (advertisement), for colloquial convenience, or th’ (the), to indicate dialect.
3. Archaisms: old-fashioned phrasing for nostalgic or literary effect, such as “ye old antique shoppe”-type constructions, or obsolete words such as dight (adorn) or yclept (named).
4. Dissimulation: mispronunciation of a word that involves suppressing one of two instances of the r sound, as in the erroneous Febuary (February).
5. Ellipsis: omission of implied words, whether mundane, as in “He was the only person (who) I saw,” or poetic, as in “Wrongs are engraved on marble; benefits (are engraved) on sand.”
6. Enallage: substitution for poetic effect of a correct form of a word with an incorrect form, as in “Sure some disaster has befell.”
7. Epenthesis: insertion of a consonant (called excrescence) or vowel (known as anaptyxis) into the middle of a world, as in drawring (drawing), often to illustrate a speaker’s substandard dialect.
8. Hyperbaton: transposition of words, as in “Happy is he who is simple.”
9. Mimesis: malapropisms and mispronunciations for humorous effect, as “very close veins” instead of “varicose veins.”
10. Paragoge: attachment of a superfluous suffix to a root word to indicate dialect, as in withouten (without), or to emphasize a stereotypical foreign accent, as in an Italian person’s supposed inclination to end all English words with a vowel sound in a sentence like “He’s a very-a rich-a man.”
11. Pleonasm: redundancy for literary effect, as in “He that has ears to hear, let him hear.”
12. Prosthesis: attachment of a superfluous prefix to a root word, as in “She were aborn before your time.”
13. Syneresis: folding of two syllables into one, as in everyday contraction like I’ll (“I will”) or archaic forms like “Seest thou?” (“Do you see?”).
14. Syncope: elision of letters within a word, as in e’en (even), to affect meter in poetry or otherwise allude to a classical frame of mind.
15. Timesis: insertion of a word between the elements of an open or closed compound, whether in contemporary slang (abso-frickin’-lutely) or classical usage (“So new a fashioned robe.”)
Browse all articles on the Fiction Writing category or check the recommended content for you below:
Improve your English in 5 minutes a day! Subscribe to our Writing Tips and Exercises via Email
- You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!
- Subscribers get access to our archives with 800+ interactive exercises!
- You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!