The way we speak is as individual as we ourselves are. Each of us has for instance words and phrases we like to use or a certain kind of verbal reaction. Those verbal ‘fingerprints’ help make us unique. Certainly that’s true in real life and those ‘fingerprints’ also add depth to fictional characters. I’m not talking here of accents or the use of dialect in writing. That’s a different matter (and also really interesting. Or maybe I just think that because of my background in linguistics…). Rather, I’m talking about those ways of speaking that are unique to an individual.
For instance, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is a firm believer in psychological approaches to crime solving. The expression he uses most frequently to describe the process of thinking through a case is using ‘the little grey cells’ of the brain. For example in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Poirot retires (or so he thinks) to the small village of King’s Abbot. When retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed, Ackroyd’s niece Flora asks Poirot to clear the name of her fiancé Ralph Paton, the prime suspect. So Poirot begins to ask questions. At one point he has a conversation with Inspector Raglan, who is the official investigator. They’re discussing approaches to investigation:
‘‘How exactly did you get to work if I may ask?’ [Poirot]
‘Certainly,’ said the inspector. ‘To begin with – method. That’s what I always say – method!’
‘Ah!’ cried the other. ‘That too is my watchword. Method, order and the little grey cells.’
‘The cells?’ said the inspector, staring.
‘The little grey cells of the brain,’ explained the Belgian.’
It is of course those little gray cells that help Poirot solve this case and that expression has become integrally associated with his character.
Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe has plenty of individual quirks that make him unique. Those extend to the verbal too. For example, when he’s exasperated, one of Wolfe’s verbal ‘fingerprints is the word pfui; it’s designed to express both contempt and impatience and usually does. In Not Quite Dead Enough for instance, Archie Goodwin returns from wartime service only to be drawn into a military case. He’s asked to persuade his former boss Nero Wolfe to investigate the supposed suicide of Captain Albert Cross. The death has to be investigated very quietly for political and national security reasons so the Powers That Be don’t want a high-profile case. At first Wolfe is reluctant but he agrees to take a look at the case. One aspect of the investigation is tracing Cross’ movements in the days and weeks before his death. At one point he discusses those activities with a group of Cross’ colleagues:
‘He sent a telegram to his fiancée in Boston that he would see her on Saturday. And then committed suicide? Pfui.’
As it turns out, Wolfe is justified in rejecting the suicide theory. Lawson’s been murdered and Wolfe and Goodwin find out what the reasons were.
In Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper of the Derbyshire police investigate when an old corpse turns up on Pity Wood Farm near the village of Rakedale. Until recently the farm was owned by brothers Raymond and Derek Sutton; in fact, they owned the farm at the time the body was buried there so one of the team’s tasks is to interview them. Derek Sutton has died but Raymond lives in a nursing home. He is a firm believer in old-style Biblical religion and his conversation often includes references to religion and the Bible. For instance, early in the novel, the detectives have just interviewed Sutton:
‘Raymond Sutton stood to one side of the window and watched the police officers get into their car at the end of the drive.
Quietly, he muttered a sentence to himself.
‘And they answered and said unto him, Where, Lord?’
As the car passed out of sight, he let the curtain drop. He turned back to face the room, looked around him for a moment, and finished the quotation.
‘And he said unto them,
Wheresoever the body is, there will the eagles be gathered.’’
As he explains, what he says comes from the Gospel of Saint Luke. His verbal identity if you want to put it that way is related to his deep religious convictions. When another body is discovered on the farm, it looks very likely that Raymond Sutton could be the killer. And his strong religious views could provide a motive. In the end though, the killings have less to do with the Bible and more to do with the background of Pity Wood Farm.
Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman lives and works in a Melbourne building called Insula. She and the other residents of the building have formed a strong community and frequently help each other. One of those residents is Miriam Kaplan, who goes by her Wicca name Meroe. Meroe is deeply spiritual and is determined to use her knowledge of herbal remedies for good. She is a skilled healer who notices immediately when there is unbalance and stress in an environment. Meroe’s spirituality is part of what’s behind some of the phrases she uses frequently. One of her best-known is her greeting, ‘Blessed be.’ That’s very often the first thing she says for instance when she walks into a room. Meroe is certainly not the only person to use this expression as it’s a Wicca greeting. But in this series it gives her character an added distinction.
The use of an individual verbal ‘fingerprint’ plays an important role in Wendy James’ The Mistake. Jodie Evans Garrow has what everyone thinks of as a successful life: an attorney husband, two healthy children and a nice home in a nice area. But everything falls apart when a secret from her past comes out. When Jodie’s daughter Hannah is taken to a Sydney hospital, it turns out to be the same hospital where years earlier, she had given birth to another child. One of the nurses at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption but as the nurse soon discovers, there are no official records. Soon some disturbing questions are raised: What happened to the baby? Why did Jodie never tell anyone about the birth? Did she somehow have something to do with the baby’s disappearance? Before long Jodie becomes a social pariah. The only bright spot as you might say is that she re-connects with an old friend from childhood Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan. Jodie is invited one night to a book club meeting that Bridie also attends. At first Jodie doesn’t recognise her old friend but Bridie knows her. The one thing that finally clinches Jodie’s recognition is Bridie’s use of a pet expression ‘true story.’ She used it all the time when the women were young and Jodie remembers it. The book club meeting turns out to be disastrous but it does result in a reunion between the two friends. Bridie is the only person who doesn’t judge Jodie and who wants to know what really happened and Jodie comes to depend on her as the case threatens to engulf her.
Our individual words and phrases can be quite distinctive and in fiction they can give a character added personality. I’m thinking for instance of Craig Johnson’s Henry Standing Bear, who doesn’t use contractions. There are other examples too. Do you notice those expressions? If you’re a writer, do you plan the unique expressions your characters use?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Got a Way.