One way to envelop your reader in a new world is to create (or appropriate) slang. Done clumsily, it can detract from your story, but Buffy and Firefly show how slang can add nuance to your story’s universe.
Joss Whedon is responsible for two of the most popular cult-classic TV shows of all time: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. It’s easy to see why. These shows are smart, innovative, bold, complex, profound, hilarious, tragic, and flat-out fun. (Bonus points: Buffy featured one TV’s most compelling strong female characters).
Whedon is widely admired for his whip-smart dialog, but for me, one of the aspects that makes his scripts so interesting is the way he handles slang.
One of the struggles all writers face when writing dialog for young characters is how to capture their way of speaking in a realistic manner. This is especially problematic if those characters are modern teens. You can try to use actual slang, but slang changes so quickly: what’s lit today is gnarly tomorrow. For Buffy, Whedon sidestepped the issue by creating his own slang, what became known as Buffy-speak.
There are two approaches to creating slang: you can create new slang words, or you can create a new way of speaking.
Creating new words is often necessary when you need to describe things or concepts unique to your universe, e.g. grok, muggle, thoughtcrime, etc. But creating new slang words, can be, well, cringey (as the kids are sayin’ these days). Often they just seem unnecessary or clumsy, or they are just obvious and silly substitutes for curse words, a la frak, frell, cruck, kriff.
With Buffy-speak, Whedon chose the second approach. Specifically, he changed the way common words are used; e.g. adding “much” to a noun, adjective, or infinitive verb (“Geek out much?” “Excuse much?”); adding –age, -ness, or –y to words (“crazy hijinks and slayage ensued,” After being asked to work a double shift, Buffy says “Why the double-shiftiness?” or Willow to Xander who wants to watch Apocalypse Now, “Maybe we can watch something not so heart-of-darkness-y?”). It’s an approach that feels real and has even worked its way into reality.
Of course, every character doesn’t speak that way, mostly just the three “scoobies” and a few of their high school friends. The adults and vampires mostly avoid slang, with the exception of Giles and Spike, who often use British expressions. And not every teen speaks that way. Faith, for example, avoids all of that, and mostly just uses her own expression, “five-by-five.” Oz, too, usually avoids the scoobies’ slang, though he has his own odd way of speaking. The three villains in season six, Jonathan, Warren, and Andrew, sprinkle their speech with constant geek cultural references. All of this is a long way of saying that if you are going to create your own slang, be careful who uses it and when. If you do it correctly, as the Buffy writers do, it can help add a nice layer of realism to your world and subtly identify your tribes.
Firefly: stealing slang to flesh out a universe
In Firefly, a sci-fi show featuring adult characters, Whedon took a different approach: he simply stole slang words from other cultures. The aesthetic of Firefly is that of a Western set in space, so characters often talk like they’re in an old-fashioned Western film, with words like druther, ornery, yonder, dang, plumb, right smart, or odd sentences like, “Where’d she go gettin’ all-fired jealous ’bout this?” But, as we saw in Buffy, every character doesn’t speak like a ranch-hand, only those in the outer rim planets — those far from the cultural center of the galaxy. It’s not just a stylistic choice, but one that makes sense within the logic of the series.
There’s another layer of slang in Firefly, characters often speak in Mandarin. This is often employed when they’re cursing. (One fun aspect of this was it allowed the characters to curse on TV without being censored. Unlike on Battlestar Galactica, which (in)famously used the made-up word frak, the characters on Firefly used actual Mandarin curse words.) Interestingly, because characters speak Mandarin when they’re being informal, it suggests a rich cultural history to the show that is never officially stated. (One complaint, though: there should have been more Asian actors on the show. Cultural appropriation much?)
(A nice, non-Whedon example of this kind of slang can be found in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which is littered with Rastafarian cultural tidbits.)
If you do feel like you want to create actual new slang words in your book or script, be sure to have them fit within the logic of your universe so that it makes sense to the reader and one can intuit how the characters may have created those terms.
For instance, in Buffy, “dust” means to kill a vampire. You can clearly see how this expression would have come about, because every time a vamp is killed on the show s/he turns into dust. If a character on Firefly thinks something is cool, s/he is likely to describe it as “shiny.” Again, this makes sense, since everything on the show is so covered in dust, dirt, or grime that anything shiny would truly be something special.
Another way you can use artificial slang is to suggest something about the character. Faith’s “five-by-five” offers us a nice example. “Five-by-five” is a real-world expression that comes from radio. If a signal was both loud and clear, an operator would say it was “five-by-five.” But Faith uses it to mean cool: “Hey, as long as you don’t go scratchin’ at me or humpin’ my leg, we’re five-by-five, ya’ know?” This is exactly the kind of clumsy artificial slang you don’t normally want to use, but I think it works in Faith’s case because it smacks of someone who is trying too hard to be, well, five-by-five.
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