Inarticulate characters – know what I mean?

Writing characters who are more articulate than we are is one problem. Writing inarticulate characters, or characters who are less articulate than we believe ourselves to be, and making them sympathetic. That’s another problem again, and I’m not sure it’s easier.


Clearly, I hadn’t opened it for more than 30 years, Margaret Atwood’s Good Bones. It’s a collection of very short pieces, stories, prose poems, the author playing with language and ideas. One piece is a retelling of Hamlet from the point of view – and in the voice – of Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother.

By the way, darling, I wish you wouldn’t call your step dad the bloat king, he does have a slight weight problem and it hurts his feelings.

I took it off the shelf and, tucked in with Gertrude’s story, I found a newspaper cutting. The Guardian Weekly, if anyone remembers that. They used to print it on airmail paper and post it around the world. The clip contained Prince Charles’s reinterpretation of the ‘To be or not to be’ speech. It begins: Well, frankly, the problem as I see it… and goes on to ask what happens if, when you’ve bumped yourself off, you might find you’re still – know what I mean?

The heir apparent was addressing the competitors and (I presume) their parents and sundry members of the establishment on the occasion of the final round of the Thomas Cranmer School Prize in London on 19th December 1989. This competition was for children reciting poetry learned by heart. (It only seems to have been run the once. At least, I can’t find any other references to it taking place in any other year.)

The Prince took the opportunity to inveigh against the decline in young people’s use of English. This he chose to illustrate with a re-writing of ‘To be or not to be’ in the style of a modern illiterate. It’s obvious, reading his whole speech (which is available on-line at the Prince of Wales’ own website) that he wanted people to reel back in horror at the debased English.

But the re-writing is rather good. At the time – and again now 30+ years on – I was impressed and moved by the inarticulacy. I hope the Prince actually wrote it himself, because it would bump him up in my estimation, but I suppose it was probably an anonymous speech writer.

Either way, it shines a light on a conflict we have as writers. How to present profound emotions, deep thoughts, ethical dilemmas in the experience of people who are not naturally articulate. Which is to say most of us.

Despite what Prince Charles may think (may have thought in 1989), no matter how well educated we may be, few of us use literary language to express ourselves in day-to-day situations. If you don’t believe me, record someone talking. Not reading from a script or a book, but simply in conversation. Then transcribe it. Look at all the repetition, the hesitations, the redundant phrases and the poverty of the language. But also the flashes of wit, the occasional wordplay, the references to current events or pop culture. See how the speakers get their meaning across.

(Would it be mean of me to give you a link at this point to “The Camillagate Tapes”? Probably, but here it is anyway.)

When it comes to talking about love and compassion, fairness and injustice, death and the afterlife, the educated may reach for poetry or prayer, but the uneducated or the very young often have a very limited vocabulary. It’s easy enough to make an inarticulate character comic, far more difficult to give them pathos or make them tragic. But it can be done.

How do you go about writing inarticulate characters?

Do you have a favourite author who does it particularly well?


Well, frankly, the problem as I see it 
at this moment in time is whether I should 
just lie down under all this hassle and 
let them walk all over me, or whether 
I should just say OK, I get the message, 
and do myself in. I mean, let's face it, 
I'm in a no-win situation, and 
quite honestly, I'm so stuffed up to here 
with the whole stupid mess that 
I can tell you I've just got a good mind 
to take the quick way out. 
That's the bottom line. 
The only problem is, what happens 
if I find that when I've bumped myself off 
there's some kind of a, you know, 
all that mystical stuff about when you die, you might find you're still 
- know what I mean?

From Prince Charles’s speech

Prince Charles in 1984
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. 

from Hamlet

Engraving of the Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare, believed to be painted from life

Illustration credits: The portrait of Prince Charles as he was in 1984 is by Allan Warren CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. The portrait of Shakespeare is an etching based on the National Gallery’s Chandos Portrait. This, says Wikipedia, was “long thought to be the only portrait of William Shakespeare that had any claim to have been painted from life”. Also from Wikimedia Commons.

Read more about character building in Sue Borgersen’s Profile your characters like a pro.

Note: I’m also publishing this post on my own website at TheSupercargo.com.
Reuse, repurpose, recycle!

4 Comments

  1. A classic Supercargo post! Really enjoyed reading this, John. I’ll have to give your questions some thought.

  2. Thanks Gail. I’m sure there are authors who are known for tackling this issue in different ways, I just can’t remember any of them. I’m sure there’s at least one author I’ve read who has written eloquent passages of internal thought for characters that are monosyllabic in dialogue. Am I thinking of John Berger in Pig Earth? I’ll have to look out a copy and re-read. It was a very long time since I read it first.

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