What’s Your Style?

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A writer’s style is the sum of sentence structure, sentence length, vocabulary, literary or cultural allusions, and world view.

We all strive to create a style that will result in a distinctive “voice” that will distinguish our writing from that of others. Some writers have succeeded so well in creating that distinctive voice that adjectives have been coined from their names to describe their writing styles.

Byronic George Gordon Lord Byron (1788-1824) is closely associated with English Romanticism. Contempory William Hazlitt (1778-1830) nailed Byron’s style in an essay comparing Byron with Wordsworth:

Lord Byron makes man after his own image, woman after his own heart; the one is a capricious tyrant, the other a yielding slave; he gives us the misanthrope and the voluptuary by turns; and with these two characters, burning or melting in their own fires, he makes out everlasting centos [i.e., “patchworks” or composites] of himself. He hangs the cloud, the film of his existence over all outward things, sits in the centre of his thoughts, and enjoys dark night, bright day, the glitter and the gloom ‘in cell monastic.’ We see the mournful pall, the crucifix, the death’s-heads, the faded chaplet of flowers, the gleaming tapers, the agonized brow of genius, the wasted form of beauty; but we are still imprisoned in a dungeon; a curtain intercepts our view; we do not breathe freely the air of nature or of our own thoughts. —

The Byronic hero is a flawed character who behaves in self-destructive ways. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, and Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre are Byronic heroes. A modern example is the self-absorbed protagonist of Loehfelm’s Fresh Kills. (The novel that won last year’s Amazon/Penguin fiction competition.)

Rabelaisian [răb’ə-lā’zē-ən, -zhən] The Renaissance French writer, François Rabelais (c. 1494-1553) is remembered for his coarse sense of humor, sexual double meanings, and preposterous verbal images. The most foul-mouthed modern tough, given to dirty jokes, will find somethng to shock in Pantagreul or Gargantua.

Dickensian [di ken zē-ən], Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is still read, not only because teachers habitually assign Great Expectations, but because his novels still offer a good read. His style is marked by unforgettable, zany characters with outrageous, but apt names like Pecksniff and Micawber. Who can forget the images of Miss Havisham and her mouldering wedding feast? Another aspect of the Dickensian style is a sympathy for the poor and marginalized members of society, and a burning anger at institutionalized social inequities.

Kafkaesque (käf’kə-ĕsk’) Franz Kafka (1883-1924) created fictional worlds in which characters try to make sense of a nighmarish world in they are affected by things they don’t understand. His best known story, “Metamorphosis,” features a man who transforms into an insect, but tries to continue his daily routine. The Trial is about a man who is arrested and tried for a crime he has no knowledge of having committed. Kafka’s writing style seems simple and straightforward, but it’s full of philosophizing about the absurdity of life. It’s not easy to understand one of his stories with only one reading. Many speakers use “Kafkaesque” as a snynonym for “surreal.”

Shavian [shā’vē-ən] George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was a writer and critic best known for his numerous dramas, many of which are still performed. Millions have seen My Fair Lady, which is based on his play Pygmalion. Shaw’s style is marked by caustic wit and a contempt for blind tradition. His dramas are soap boxes. His characters represent different points of view. He used his plays to talk about politics, language, education, religion, and social inequities. He peppers his dialog with witty wisecracks to keep the audience engaged.

Swiftian – Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) belongs to the tribe of Rabelais. His writings contain numerous references to bodily functions. Gulliver extinguishes a fire with a stream of urine. Swift’s style is journalistic. “A Modest Proposal,” for example, reads like a newspaper article, using simple speech and statistics to present his argument. Swift is a master of the unreliable narrator. Inexperienced readers often mistake the views expressed by the narrator with the views of the author, missing the bitter, Swiftian, irony.

Orwellian (ôr-wĕl’ē-ən) George Orwell is the pen name of Eric Blair (1903-1950). Although “Orwellian” can be used to describe his style of writing, more often it is used to describe a destructive, dystopian society in which a totalitarian government controls people by repressing independent thought, altering history books, and declaring lies as if they were truth. Owell’s style is deceptively objective. He employs simple, straightforward, vividly descriptive language to persuade readers to his point of view.

Characteristics of the Byronic hero.

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10 thoughts on “What’s Your Style?”

  1. An interesting post, thanks for it. The styledjectives (style names adjectives) sound like names of a new lineup of the System Of A Down band 🙂

  2. I subscribe to this blog and read it every day, and although a lot of the posts are useful, maybe once a week there’ll be some totally generalised, arbritary rubbish like this that really makes me wonder…

    (Do you really want writers assigning a “Dickensian style” — which by the way goes much deeper than “zany characters” — to their writing in this day and age? Help writers with stuff they actually need to know about… you can do better than this.)

  3. In “What’s Your Style” I would have thought the “”Hemingwayan” style deserves mention with its economy of word use, lack of literary ostentation and dogged sense of purpose to convey mood and setting in sparse prose and dialogue.

  4. @ Anon: Do you really think the Dickensian style is not useful this day in age? You’ve got to be kidding me. Charles Dickens and his style are timeless.

  5. Timeless yes, and undoubtedly brilliant… but not useful to new writers (which is, er, what I said). The Dickensian style is so recognisable that any other writer using it would just be accused of ripping him off. If you like 19th Century writing styles, read 19th Century literature… but don’t expect contemporary writers to go on producing material that mimicks that period. Don’t you want writing to evolve?

  6. @ Anon: That’s different. Language usage has changed, but according to this post, writing style contains themes and characters as well.

    If what you said was true, wouldn’t Shakespeare be pointless to learn now?

  7. Words have change patterns. Why? Great Expectation I hope is not an influence on young women of this new age. I remember when my first crush ended; my first reaction was to join the ministry. That was because I was influenced by Charles Dickson’s lady in the cobweb covered bedroom and cobweb covered bridal outfit.

  8. its just how culture raised us, dont be afraid to be vulgar, its been 22 and a half years since the niggers were being whipped HAHA i said niggers being whipped! how hillarious is that? funniest thing ive ever heard in my life if you ask me

  9. When I read anything about Dickensian, my favorite author comes to mind: John Irving. He doesn’t hide his love for Dickens in his work, on the contrary, he loves to parade Dickens to the reader.

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