Beyond me… bilingual characters

I am fascinated with languages. I think some of my previous posts have made that clear. However, I myself, am struggling to gain fluency in a second language, though I do like to gather random phrases from other languages. It’s fun to have the ability to communicate with a larger percentage of the Earth’s population. So of course, I’m jealous of people with complete fluency in multiple languages. I tend to like giving my characters abilities that I wish I had ( like hand-eye-coordination), but I have never written a bilingual character. I fear that it might add a level of complexity that I can’t handle. 

I would have to deal with showing how the character uses her second language. That is not an element that can simply be claimed and then ignored. Words from the secondary language would need to be artfully laced into the dialogue. I think those words would best be used in exclamations and under-the-breath muttering, but once again the concept of balance comes into play. Too many words in a foreign language and a series of risks develops. First, readers that don’t understand the words will be confused and lose interest, the dialogue could get weighed down with explanations, and the speed of the plot could get dramatically slowed down. Therefore, bilingual characters bring with them the unique challenge of needing to be developed with a sparse sprinkling of words, like appropriately balanced salt use.

In fantasy and science fiction genres, a whole new level can be added to the challenge if the second language that the character communicates in is not English. In that case, the writer has to develop and keep straight a whole vocabulary of their own invention. The complexity of that process is almost too much to handle. In the development of Avatar for the silver screen, a whole team of people contributed to inventing the alien language that was used. There’s a reason that masters of belingual worlds like JRR Tolkien gain places of honor in our literary tradtion.

For now, my characters speak english, only English. However, maybe one day in the future, I will be ready to hurtle myself to the next level with a character that has also acheived a level beyond mine. 

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