There’s a tendency in many writers to reach for the word that sounds right, that fits the deportment of the sentence and the flow of the writing, instead of the word most suitable in terms of meaning. I catch myself doing this a fair bit. Alongside more ‘highfalutin’ novels I also consume a fair amount of pulp. It’s accessible, which I think is important, and it’s fun, which I think is essential. But it’s often lazy, full of received wisdom, second-hand concepts and terms borrowed from elsewhere that do not precisely mean what the author thinks they mean.
This is all forgivable. When you’re consuming something for sheer entertainment, knowing that this is precisely the intended function of the text, it’s unreasonable to expect it to measure up to what we call literary fiction in terms of the employment of language. But those of us that also write should probably be careful that we don’t find ourselves falling too much under the influence. We should, in short, take care that we always try to use the right word.
The Modernists, who by and large took these things seriously, had a term for this: le mot juste. It simply means, the correct or exact word. It’s a term you might have encountered in college or university, probably when studying Eliot’s The Waste Land. Or you might have come across it on a writing forum or in a creative writing class. It’s concept that’s always in the popular consciousness amongst writers and poets because it’s a concept that should never be forgotten.
So I’m going to look at three terms which are used in fantasy (or pulp SF) a fair bit, and are treated as though they are interchangeable. If we dig deeper, we’ll see that they’re actually charged with unique meaning. These words are Invincible, Inviolable and Invulnerable.
“You’re a loony.”
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
This is a really common word, right? Last night my son came across it in a school book about Norse Mythology and had to query what it meant. I’ve seen it used to mean indestructible or impervious to damage. It doesn’t mean this but I suppose, if we’re being generous, it’s pretty close. But le mot juste isn’t about being generous. It’s about being a heartless, nit-picking bastard.
So, invincible actually describes something that cannot be conquered or subjugated, something that cannot be overcome. It’s root is in the Latin vincere which means to conquer. So if someone zaps your hero’s shaceship with an energy beam, but the armour repels the beam, this isn’t invincibility (especially when the enemy changes tactics and teleports onto the ship’s bridge, capturing it). When your dragon blasts an enemy knight but his armour turns the flame aside, requiring your sorceror to bind the knight in magical chains instead, he wasn’t invincibility either, since in both cases the thing being described has eventually been conquered by other means. But if an enemy city is under siege for 10,000 years but still isn’t close to falling, or a hero keeps being assailed by, and keeps defeating, villain after villain, I reckon you can go ahead and slap them with the label invincible.
So is the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail invincible? Well, he refuses to surrender, so he has that going for him. One thing’s for sure though, he’s neither of the following things…
Here’s a good one. It’s more unusual, but you still see it thrown around. The kind of word writers use when they’re not so afraid of being misunderstood, or branded pretentious. But it’s also a word that we see being used incorrectly.
I wanted to describe a character as inviolable because they had been through all manner of misery and emerged intact and fearsome. But the trouble was, that’s not what this word denotes. If something is inviolable, it is incapable of being infringed upon, corrupted, violated. So a character who has endured some sort of catharsis cannot be said to be inviolable. In fact, you have to be violable in order to be able to experience catharsis, because of the purging and invasive nature of the cathartic process. You can’t be shoved through an emotional wringer if you’re too resilient for the mechanism.
This is another common one, of course. We probably see it treated as a synonym for Invincible. But again it’s quite different. As the word suggests, it’s the opposite of vulnerable. It implies a lack of weak points. So an invulnerable character can still be captured and incarcerated. They can still lose battles, just as long as the defeat didn’t require them to be harmed or damaged. An invulnerable foe can be defeated simply by trapping them on an island or firing them into space on a rocket. Just don’t try and hit them with sticks or run them through with a sword, because that’s not going to work.
To a lot of you, this will seem elementary. But I’m deep in the editing process right now (with the light now visible at the end of the tunnel) and this is the sort of thing that’s keeping me awake at night.
Searching for the right word can lead you down some dark alleys. I asked someone close to me what they thought of the word ‘uninterrogable’ as a description of a deep pit and they visually recoiled. It’s a very cool word (to me) and means that something cannot be interrogated. You can learn nothing from it, there’s no way to study and glean from it any truth or fact. Sure, some readers are flat-out going to hate the word, but others will enjoy it (if I like it, there must be someone else out there, surely?). So I went ahead and used it, despite my test audience’s reaction. It appealed to the Lovecraft reader in me.
So I guess my advice is, if the only word you can find is one that some people will hate (there’s a large number of readers who really don’t like encountering words they haven’t already encountered) and you choose nevertheless to make use of it, don’t expect every reader to thank you. But at least you will be saying what you mean, which as we all know is quite important.
Keep writing and being awesome.