Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"Speak English, please..."

So, as a Biology major late to the game, I'm a newbie when it comes to scientific jargen. Do the words have to be so long? Yeah, they do. They do mean something. But unless you know "the code" or the "secret handshake" (or alternatively, attempt years of study in doorstopper worthy textbooks) it all sounds very foreign. But, like suddenly understanding a smattering of Spanish, I got a thrill when I actually understood two out of three words spoken by the forensic scientist on a detective show.

There I was, watching Inspector Lewis on PBS and half-listening. Then, amazingly, I heard that snippet of scientific jargen that sounded two-thirds familiar.

Forensic scientist: It's a linear polymer "something."
Detective Lewis: Speak English, please.
Forensic scientist: Corn starch.

Da da da dum.

Well, it was supposed to be a da da da dum moment anyway. Truthfully, I have no idea what big revelation corn starch had to do with anything plot related. I should have been paying attention. *sigh*

This brought up several thoughts, including my attention deficit disorder. But first, I had that little thrill. Wow. I almost knew what the brainy scientist was talking about. Two-thirds anyway. Me...little old me...recognized a corn starch by its scientific description. I should almost get my geek club card or something.

Okay, back to earth. It's strange, but that thrill of knowlege isn't supposed to be there. In a blink of an eye, that dialogue serves a few purposes, but it wasn't meant to be understood. One character knew the lingo as comfortably as English while the other needs clarification..."speak English, please." What is the purpose? Authenticity perhaps? Humanizing the great detective by showing he's "just like us" and doesn't know everything? All possibilities. Granted, the significance of the clue (the corn starch) was also important. (Oh, I did mention I didn't get that, right?)

But did it matter? Yes and no. As a viewer, I still enjoyed the performance of the mystery even if I flat-out missed some of the clues. I shrug it off though. In the end, I'm satisfied. In fact, in what I've missed I have additional admiration for the cleverness of the characters. They are, indeed, smarter and more observant than I am. That's okay. They're supposed to be.

As a writer, this is the intimidating part. I must know the details. Even the snippets of brilliance of secondary characters. It has to make sense and be factual. Who knows, afterall, who might catch my mistakes? My goodness! (*starts to hyperventilate at this new thought*) As my creations, must I be as smart as ALL my characters? For that matter, is it even possible to write a character who is smarter than myself? (*confused now, contemplating this paradox*) That isn't possible is it?

Wait! I'm not throwing in the towel just yet. Inspector Lewis didn't get an inferiority complex, right? No, he just asks, "speak English, please." I suspect there's a clue here for how a writer goes about presenting brilliance.
Sure, the brilliant character still has to be given the right lines, but maybe there's a sort of writerly trick to pulling off the essence of brilliance. For instance, I think, as in real life, it's possible to brush shoulders with brilliant characters. Not total immersion, but as an outsider might overhear or encounter. The main character is our guide. Inspector Lewis, highly intelligent in a practical sort of way, is our guide. He needs to request, "speak English, please." Translate. We learn as he learns. In the same episode, he also learns about a historical legend of buried treasure on an English estate. This is from a woman at the University who wrote her doctorate on the subject. (There is also some flirting and Inspector Lewis gets a date. Cagey devil.)

The point is, the main character surrounds himself with experts. He doesn't know, but finds out. Just the same, when we do research, we can present this information through, indeed, characters smarter than ourselves but filtered through the lead character. And the information imparted is brief and serves many other purposes. So, maybe there's no need to panic. Some day readers will also be thinking your characters are smarter and more observant than they are. They might even associate the characters' cleverness with you, the author. (If they only knew! Shhh.)

As for getting that observation part down, well that's another problem...(What the heck was so important about the corn starch, anyway? Never mind.)

Do you write characters smarter than you? :)


  1. Great post.
    I too have been intimidated by the expertise of my characters or even the science of my settings. However, I have realized that these things are really only illusions. We just create the impression of knowledge and science. It's all smoke and mirrors. It helps to do the research needed to get the details right, but only the details you need are the ones you are feeding your audience. The rest is just implied by their own imagination and projected onto our characters and, like you said, onto us as authors. I honestly have never been to an asteroid or been in free fall, but with a sprinkling of facts and a generous of helping of imagination I am an expert in asteroid mining. Or at least my character is.

    WRITE ON!!!

  2. Thanks for commenting A W. :) Yes, you're right. That's exactly what I was trying to say -- it's an illusion.

    Another thing I take as encouraging is knowing I have as many opportunites as time will allow to set up the illusion.

    Asteroid mining huh? :) Now that would be an interesting profession!

  3. I love Inspector Lewis, only I don't get to see his show (note to self: put it on your Netflix queue). I'm secretly thrilled he HAS his own show because Inspector Morse was always so mean to him. LOL

    I worry sometimes whether readers will one day find some glaring mistake because I didn't know something -- but I try not to let it paralyze me. I mean, not all readers are going to know everything either, right? LOL

  4. Donna, I don't think I saw too many Inspector Morse episodes so I can't remember him being mean to Inspector Lewis. I do like the relationship between Lewis and his partner though. And I lived near Oxford many years ago so I enjoy the setting. :)

    It can be paralyzing to worry about errors. I guess I don't have enough finished works not to worry too much though! LOL


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